Last year when Category 4 Hurricane Joaquin raked across the out islands of the Bahamas, the nation’s senior information officer was in Jamaica watching Facebook in horror.
“First it was eight people were dead, then nine, then 30,” said Lindsay Thompson, who is attending the National Hurricane Conference in Orlando this week. “I’m trying to stay calm, but the numbers kept climbing.”
And they were wrong. In the end, she said no one died directly from the storm in the Bahamas, but that the experience drove home how important social media is during a hurricane.
Thirty three people did die when the cargo ship El Faro sank in Hurricane Joaquin.
This morning, Julie Roberts, external affairs director for the Florida Division of Emergency Management, spoke to a room of about 50 people about how social media is changing how emergencies need to be communicated.
While the last hurricanes to hit Florida happened during a time before Twitter, she said more recent tragedies such as the Boston Maraton bombing and the 2014 shooting at Los Angeles International Airport are incidents to learn from.
“You have to get out in front of things and tell people what is going on,” Roberts said, noting that for people evacuated during the Los Angeles airport shooting, social media was one of the few ways they were able to receive information. “Establish a social media channel and retweet official sources when you can.”
The 2016 Hurricane Conference, held at the Hilton Orlando, is being attended by 1,500 people including emergency managers, forecasters and meteorologists.
Today’s main discussion will be a 2016 hurricane outlook by Colorado State University researcher and hurricane expert Phil Klotzbach. Klotzbach will give an update on the current and projected trends in El Nino, Atlantic sea surface temperatures and why there has been a 10-year drought in Atlantic basin hurricanes.
Hurricane Joaquin did cause tens of millions of dollars in damage to the Bahamas, but thankfully, Thompson said, it wasn’t as bad as social media originally made out.
She is now working on ways to improve communication during emergencies on social media platforms.
“It only takes one person to send something out and everyone feeds on it,” she said. “That is one of the challenges we face as an island nation.”