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FEMA tackles the hurricane rumor mill with new web page

Hurricane Flo batters the Carolina coast - NWS radar image 

Hurricane Florence batters the Carolina coast on Sept. 14.

As it responds to the potential devastation of Hurricane Florence, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has set up a new web page to track and warn the public about unsubstantiated whisper campaigns related to relief efforts.

Thus far the page -- last updated on Sept. 13 -- lists seven items that range from rumors about service pets not being allowed at emergency shelters (they are) to claims that FEMA lacks the necessary resources needed to help evacuees and affected residents.

On Twitter, the agency said it was setting up the page to ensure that "false information" isn't spread during a time when on-the-ground communications and media are often down or overwhelmed.

"We have created a rumor control page for Hurricane Florence that will be updated regularly," the agency's Twitter account said. "During disasters, it's critical to avoid spreading false information. Always check with official sources before sharing."

Experts often warn that a natural disaster and the ensuing general chaos create the perfect environment in which false or unsubstantiated claims can quickly spread, whether through honest confusion or by malicious outside parties.

During Hurricane Maria, many traditional communication methods relied on the by Puerto Rican government and FEMA were out of commission, forcing responders to develop new communication channels using hand radios, printed fliers and other more rudimentary means of communication. Officials have since pressed the need to explore alternative ways of getting information out during a disaster.

The entries on the FEMA rumor-control page do not specify where the agency heard of the rumors or how they are being spread. Some, like an entry about the "rumor" that the federal government recently transferred $10 million from FEMA to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, do not so much debunk a claim that has been endorsed by fact checkers, but rather spells out a different, more agency-friendly take.

The agency may also have to contend with unsubstantiated claims coming from the U.S. government. President Donald Trump retweeted FEMA's tweet a day after he claimed, without evidence, that a George Washington University report revising the death toll in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria last year up to nearly 3,000 was "bad politics" carried out by "Democrats in order to make me look bad."

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a senior staff writer at FCW, covering governmentwide IT policy, cybersecurity and a range of other federal technology issues.

Prior to joining FCW, Johnson was a freelance technology journalist. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, GoodCall News, Foreign Policy Journal, Washington Technology, Elevation DC, Connection Newspapers and The Maryland Gazette.

Johnson has a Bachelor's degree in journalism from Hofstra University and a Master's degree in public policy from George Mason University. He can be contacted at djohnson@fcw.com, or follow him on Twitter @derekdoestech.

Click here for previous articles by Johnson.


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