As Hurricane Matthew blasted across Haiti and headed north for the United States, communicators and public affairs officers got busy tweeting warnings and tips.
Few, however, were busier than the state, local and federal agencies whose social media teams pulled long shifts with little sleep.
Officials from the city of Savannah, Georgia, tweeted about mandatory evacuations. TheNational Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned about storm surges. The Federal Emergency Management Agency tirelessly retweeted safety information and offered its own warnings and tips.
“There’s no doubt that the work of folks at NOAA and the folks at FEMA and local and state as well saved lives,” says Mike Kruger, director of digital engagement for the U.S. Commerce Department, which includes NOAA and the National Weather Service.
In recent years, the communications landscape has changed. Social media—Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Periscope, among others—have emerged as the go-to means of pushing out news. Similarly, mobile is essential when trying to inform people scurrying to cover windows in plywood or rush their kids to the car.
Matthew blew at its peak intensity late Sept. 30 into early Oct. 1 when it reached Category 5 strength with 160 mph winds, Weather.com reports. After bulldozing across Haiti and Cuba on Oct. 4 as a Category 4, it weakened to Category 1, with 75 mph winds, by the time it made landfall on Oct. 8 southeast of McClellanville, South Carolina.
Still, much of the southeastern Atlantic Coast of the U.S. was hard hit as Matthew stormed up the coasts of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.
In the Commerce Department, its agencies such as the National Weather Service and its National Hurricane Center communicate about conditions as major storms and hurricanes gather at sea, offering information about wind speed and answering questions via Periscope.
— Natl Hurricane Ctr (@NWSNHC) October 7, 2016
FEMA, which is a part of the Department of Homeland Security, has responsibilities that begin when the storm comes ashore, Kruger says. Its information ranges from tweets about rescue efforts to warnings about returning to flooded homes.
— FEMA (@fema) October 10, 2016
A better way to communicate disasters
Communicators realized they needed to improve methods for warning the public after the 2005 hurricane season, when organizations still communicated mostly on websites, Kruger says.
“There was a real push on mobile, but the technology wasn’t there in ’05,” he says. “By the time we got to that string of horrible tornadoes in ’10, we said, ‘OK, we’ve got to do better.'”
Various agencies support each other’s messaging on social media. NOAA tells people, “You’re in direct path of the storm. Get out! Get out! Get out!” Kruger says, “and then FEMA directs them to relocation centers, here’s the safest route out of town, etc.”
Coordination also occurs behind the scenes. Before Superstorm Sandy hit in 2012, NOAA helped FEMA pick the locations of evacuation centers in schools, community centers, city halls and other sites. NOAA scientists knew there could be a 15-20-foot storm surge, and it overlaid its map of projected flood areas onto FEMA’s evacuation centers and roads out of town.
NOAA told FEMA, “No, no, no, here’s a handful of places of places that you’ve picked that are evacuation centers that will get flooded,” Kruger says. “So all you’re going to do is move people from their flooded homes to a flooded school. So you’ve got to move them further inland.”
This weekend Twitter buzzed with cross-pollination from various agencies. During the buildup to the storm, FEMA tweeted videos and graphics, continuing after swirling winds veered off into the Atlantic. In addition to its own content, FEMA retweeted information from organizations such as the Georgia Department of Transportation and a national disaster hotline.
Despite the focus on social media platforms, agencies continued to provide extensive information on websites, as well. NOAA maintains a hurricane response website where it can update information on the latest storm.
In a video retweeted by FEMA, the city of Fayetteville, North Carolina, pushed the message “Turn Around, Don’t Drown,” urging people not to drive across flooded sections of roads. The video thanked a task force from the New York City police and fire departments that rescued three occupants stranded atop their SUV in raging waters.
The National Weather Service made the same point in a tweet:
— NWS (@NWS) October 9, 2016
The American Red Cross, which sheltered 27,000 people at the height of the storm, posted videos, information on evacuation and requests for donations to help in the U.S. and Haiti.
— American Red Cross (@RedCross) October 9, 2016
“This is a dangerous storm, the most powerful Atlantic hurricane since Felix in 2007,” a Red Cross disaster logistics spokesman said. “As the Red Cross gets ready, we urge people who may live in the path of this storm to make their own preparations now.”
To get information into the hands of people who might be fleeing their homes, several organizations promoted apps on Twitter. FEMA offered an iTunes app that delivers weather tips, safety tips and an emergency checklist.
The Red Cross touted its own emergency apps that provide updates on hurricanes, tornadoes and other disasters. Information is also available on service members abroad, first aid for pets and their humans, and other matters.
The app promises you can “monitor hurricane conditions in your local area, throughout the storm track, and let others know you are safe even if the power is out.”
McClellanville, South Carolina, where the hurricane touched shore, appears to have no Twitter feed, but it had its own hashtag in the wake of the hurricane. (The U.S. Census Bureau lists the town’s 2010 population at 499.)
The city of Savannah, Georgia, however, made Twitter a major communications vehicle. It warned people to keep travel to a minimum because of debris, reported where people could reconnect with lost pets and reached out to vendors seeking work: “Are you an out-of-town vendor who would like to work on the clean-up effort here in Savannah?” It even offered the good news about a historic tree in the city.
— Georgia DOT (@GADeptofTrans) October 10, 2016
Miami, which dodged the full brunt of the storm, sought to call people’s attention to a longer-term risk: disease-bearing mosquitoes.
— Florida Dept. Health (@HealthyFla) October 8, 2016
Duke Energy, an electric power holding company headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina, used a dedicated web page, as well as its brand journalism site, Illumination, to inform its customers. Before the storm broke, Duke was reporting that help was on the way under the headline, “Midwest lineworkers head South to lend a hand.”
“About 650 Duke Energy lineworkers and other response personnel in Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio loaded their trucks in the pre-dawn hours Friday and headed to Florida and the Carolinas to join the thousands of Duke Energy workers already in place,” Duke stated.
By Sunday, Duke’s Illumination was reporting that its crews had restored power to more than 600,000 customers in the Carolinas-where 1.1 million customers were without power-and 266,000 customers in Florida in less than 48 hours.
Insurance companies face major payouts after hurricanes and other extreme weather destruction. Several of them, however, kept tweets to a minimum. Allstate Florida warned people to be careful where they park:
— Allstate Florida (@AllstateFL) October 6, 2016
Preparing at restaurants and hotels
As Matthew approached, the South Carolina Restaurant & Lodgings Association reprinted an article from last June detailing lessons drawn from Hurricane Irene in 2011. Under a heading, “What hoteliers would do differently,” the association noted points such as getting a generator, better training employees, establishing a procedure for dealing with prepaid rooms that had to be canceled, and fostering better employee communications.
At least one restaurant chain got a PR boost from a pre-hurricane tweet. Waffle House won the attention from messaging that was on target and appropriate, letting customers know about closings.
All Waffle House restaurants on 1-95 between Titusville, FL and Fort Pierce, FL are closed. Stay safe Waffle Nation! #HurricaneMatthew
— Waffle House (@WaffleHouse) October 6, 2016
That was enough to result in pickup by a presumably waffle-loving reporter at the Miami Herald, “When Waffle House surrenders to a hurricane, you know it’s bad.” (Bear in mind that this was before the storm hit U.S. shores.)
While others were watching hurricane categories, the Herald explained “the Waffle House Index” seen in previous disasters: “Green: Waffle House is serving a full menu and electricity is on. Yellow: a limited menu, implying low food supplies and possibly the necessity of using generators. Red: Waffle House has closed, and life as we once knew it has been reduced to chaos and entropy.”
Other businesses found ways to bring Matthew’s reach home to people. SAS, the business analytics company located in Cary, North Carolina, tweeted a link to a blog post, “Where did Hurricane Matthew drop the most water?” In the post, an employee used SAS software to map out which areas got how much rain.
— SAS Software (@SASsoftware) October 10, 2016
On Monday the National Weather Service in Raleigh, North Carolina, continued warning people that flood waters were still a danger.
Remember, for many eastern NC areas, flood waters have yet to crest!
For more forecast info, you can use https://t.co/ftghMn26YW
— NWS Raleigh (@NWSRaleigh) October 10, 2016
In the end, exhausted communicators could take pride in their work, Kruger says.
“These public servants who often get derided in the press and get derided in the political season,” Kruger says, “worked as much as was needed and probably longer than their bodies could really handle to make sure people got safe.”