Relying on Social Media and Open Data During Emergencies

A massive hurricane is swirling toward the eastern seaboard of the U.S. leaving 29 million people under a Hurricane warning on Friday night. Currently a category 2 storm, Hurricane Irene is forecast to straddle the coast before making landfall near New York City. Here in Southern California we don't have many hurricane threats but then again it had been a while since the East Coast experienced a strong earthquake before this week. It's certainly not out of the question considering our proximity to the Eastern Pacific basin. But in 1939 the only tropical storm to make landfall in California killed dozens at sea before coming ashore in Long Beach. 45 deaths were reported as a result of the flooding. In 1858 a hurricane is said to have nearly made landfall off the San Diego coast, causing the 2011 equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars before turning back out to sea.

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But in the 19th and even the 20th centuries we did not have the advanced warning and communications systems that we have today. Without even grazing land, Hurricane Irene is making history -- New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that today was the first time in the city's history that mandatory evacuations had been ordered. About a quarter-million residents, primarily on the low-lying edges of Manhattan were urged to abandon their homes. New York's subway system will be shut down Saturday at noon due to the threat of flooding.

It's uncertain what kind of damage might result from up 20 hours of sustained tropical storm force winds (40-60 mph forecast), a storm surge up to six feet and a deluge of rain (anywhere from 6 to 15 inches) to top off a wet summer.

But one thing is for sure: Hurricane Irene is headed directly toward NYC. Unless it veers to the west. Or takes a more easterly track. In the post-Katrina era both the government and the public hope to avoid any catastrophic surprises.

Google is hosting a central interface where anyone can view and mashup meteorological and government mapping data at crisislanding.appspot.com. FEMA announced a new text messaging service and an Android app today and is regularly publishing updates on local government emergency information sources available on Twitter and is recommending its Ready.gov preparedness guide. Mayor Bloomberg's office is continuously tweeting updates as well. Maps of the evacuation zones and shelters have proliferated across the web even as the NYC.gov site buckled under heavy demand earlier today.

Power outages will be widespread and cellular voice services may be shaky as they were following Tuesday's almost entirely unexpected East Coast earthquake. SMS and mobile data services, however, are more likely to tough out the storm and it will be Twitter messages and photos and YouTube videos that will keep people updated in near-real time on their internet-enabled smartphones even after the power goes out (until, inevitably the battery dies on the phone).

The Public Note is a media blog, with an eye towards public media, from KCET-TV in Southern California. Andy Sternberg comments weekly on media issues. Follow him on Twitter at @AndySternberg and KCET at @KCET and @KCETNews

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