Using Social Media to Weather the Storm during Hurricane Season

Unless you are living under a rock (or on top of one far away from a coastline) you are probably aware that Hurricane season begins on June 1st. In a perfect world anyone living within a region that is threatened by hurricanes would take the week before the start of hurricane season to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. This customary week has been sanctioned “Hurricane Preparedness Week” by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). NOAA’s goal for Hurricane Preparedness Week is to inform the public about the hurricane hazards and provide knowledge which can be used to take ACTION. NOAA instructs that you should be able to answer the following questions BEFORE a hurricane threatens:

  • What are the Hurricane Hazards?
  • What does it mean to you?
  • What actions should you take to be prepared?

If you live in an area that is susceptible to hurricanes I encourage you to read NOAA’s Hurricane Basics website, educate yourself and have a plan.

Surrounding Memorial Day weekend in Florida it is customary to see the meteorologists of each major television network produce and air hurricane preparedness programs. I was honored to be contacted by Megan Hatton, Weather Producer and Meteorologist with Storm Team 8 (WFLA – Tampa’s NBC affiliate), to discuss tips for using social media during the hurricane season for their hour long special “Hurricane Season 2010: Get Ready” that is airing Saturday, May 29th at 7PM EST on WFLA. Here are some of the things I shared.

During the Hawaii Tsunami people were using social media tools like Twitter, UStream, Facebook and YouTube as sources of news and two way communication tools to keep in touch with family and friends around the world. John Garcua (@JohnGarcia) and Kaeo Kepani (@kaeok) built a website in the early hours of the events as a gathering place for information called which was named after the Twitter hashtag, #hitsunami. This website was an open communication stream and alternative news source for government agencies, emergency response teams, news outlets, and the world in real time.

Twitter hashtags are created to assemble related information from a variety of authors and can portray an accurate account of real time events. The hashtag #hitsumani was quickly created, spread throughout Twitter, and was one of the top Twitter Trends within hours. Every minute, hundreds of people “tweeted” from all over the world, covering every aspect of the Chile Tsunami that expected to strike the Hawaiian Islands. This is just one of many examples of the benefits of using social media during natural disasters.

John and Kaeo’s example of using social media may seem overwhelming to the average non-geek Joe whose furthest social media expedition is being tagged in an awkward childhood picture by his mom on Facebook. Here are some practical tips on how you can use social media during a hurricane regardless of your technical abilities.

Electricity: The Achilles’ heel of social media

  • Keep your cell phone and laptop batteries fully charged.
  • If possible buy back up batteries and keep them charged.
  • Buy a car charger for each type of phone you own.
  • Invest in a power inverter for your car. This will provide AC power to charge laptops and to use with small electronics. I use mine on a regular basis.
  • Be efficient with battery use during a power outage. Refrain from YouTube video marathons on your iPhone during the hurricane party.  Research the best practices for optimal power consumption for each of your mobile devices. On iPhones, for example, disable push messages, disable WiFi, and disable G3 network access unless you need it. You can still make calls, text message, receive emails and surf the web on the slower but much less power hungry EDGE network on AT&T.

Platforms: A core part of your survival strategy

Laced through the heart of NOAA’s hurricane preparedness is having a plan. This includes how to stay in touch with family and friends and established gathering locations. The same holds true for social media. A significant benefit to using social media is the one-to-many principle. Basic phone calls and text messaging are one-to-one conversations. In natural disasters the ability to send a single update via the internet or SMS text messaging to a website that is hosted out of your area that the world can see is powerful.

If I personally go through a hurricane this season my family and friends can expect to receive updates on my Twitter (public) accounts, on Facebook (private to my friends), Flickr pictures, possible YouTube (public) videos, my blogs (public), and if I feel adventurous and have not lost power I may stream live video on a UStream channel. I will also be using Foursquare (semi-private) to check in to locations as I travel around. I mention the “public”, “private”, and “semi-private” tags to remind you to be aware of your audience. Unless it was an emergency I would not openly post an invite on Twitter to my private hurricane party. You never know who may show up. I’d save that for Facebook (be sure to friend me first). Let’s take a brief look at how you could use some of these platforms:

Facebook and Twitter

  • Discover related Twitter hashtags being used for the hurricane and follow them using Twitter search ( or Tweetdeck.
  • Follow other Twitter users that are reporting on the storm or live within your area again using Twitter search for both location and keyword options.
  • Tweet and post status updates about the resources that you are using to track the storm including websites and other user’s content.
  • Tweet and post status updates about your first hand experience throughout the storm. Don’t forget to use the discovered hashtags.
  • Post pictures and videos of storm related items using the hashtags. Consider using Flickr and YouTube for this as well.
  • AFTER you call emergencies in to 911 and assist if possible, post alerts of emergencies or people in need.
  • Post reports of damage and affects of the storm.
  • Post an all clear for your family and friends to know you are ok.

Foursquare, Gowalla and Brightkite (GPS – Location based social media platforms)

  • Check-in to hardware stores, grocery stores, and gas stations as you prepare for the storm and report tips on availability of supplies and fuel, warn of price gouging, recommend products.
  • Determine a meeting place for family and friends to gather. As you arrive check-in and you will create a record of your location and a virtual roll-call.
  • Use the GPS tools to find locations if they are not recognizable due to storm damage. Check-in to these locations and report your findings.

Plan, Educate, and Practice: There is a reason we did fire drills in school!

  • Signup for your accounts TODAY! Even if you are not planning to ever be on Twitter, YouTube or (cringe) Facebook the accounts are free and you don’t have to use them until you want or need to. Get this out of the way while the skies are clear.
  • Create a list of “locations” that your family and friends can receive updates on you and distribute them. This would include your Twitter account (i.e.,, YouTube user name, Flickr account name, invite them to be friends on Facebook, and if adventurous your UStream channel URL.
  • Become familiar with the platforms by posting a couple of test updates to each of the platforms. If you need help check out YouTube. You can find tutorials on just about anything there.
  • Research how to post updates to via SMS text messaging in the event that you lose internet access. SMS is a very resilient network and could be available to use even if voice cell service is out. Most social media platforms have the ability to receive and send updates via text messaging including Twitter, Facebook, and Foursquare.

I hope this helps you start to think of ways you can incorporate social media in to your hurricane or natural disaster plans. Please let me know your thoughts and anything that I may have missed. Remember, your personal safety is the number one priority during a natural disaster or storm.

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