12+ tools and resources useful during hurricanes and other disasters

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After a quiet summer, hurricane season seems to have awoken with a vengeance.

Three hurricanes are churning in the Atlantic, and at least one seems likely to make a destructive landfall on the United States. At the same time, the Pacific is also oddly active.

We know this script. On this day last year, I was working remotely from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, after a grueling 19-hour evacuation from Florida. I was one of the millions of Floridians fleeing Hurricane Irma, then poised to strike Florida as a category four or five hurricane.

A handful of tools and resources made our preparation, evacuation, coverage and recovery a little bit easier and more complete. I shared some of them in this newsletter last year, but following is an updated list with additional resources and context.

If you’re not in the hurricane zones of the world, note that many of these tools are handy for any type of natural or manmade disaster. I hope you never have to use them.

EYEWITNESS PHOTOS AND VIDEOS: As Irma approached the Caribbean last year, live videos from locations like the Turks and Caicos Islands demonstrated the hurricane’s strength. These videos can show conditions on the ground and add important context through imagery. In Irma’s case, they served as an effective warning to those in its path.

  • The Facebook Live Map plots public live videos by location, making relevant streams easy to find. They are embeddable, so audiences don’t have to leave your website to watch, and recorded for later viewing by default.
  • Snap Map displays public Snaps and Snap Stories based on location. Snaps tend to be rawer than livestreams. Like Facebook Live, Snap Map content is embeddable. But unlike embeds from Twitter or Facebook, which work as long as the original content remains published, Snap Map embeds disappear after 30 days. To those on the ground looking to provide videos and imagery through Snapchat, consider another tool unless you have power or large battery backups — the app has a tendency to be a battery suck.

CROWDSOURCING: Whether you’re trying to provide a service to your audience or gather images and information, crowdsourcing is a powerful way to extend your reporting. Miami-based The New Tropic and South Florida NPR station WLRN teamed up during Irma and used Ushahidi to crowdsource information about supplies and preparation. Then, as the storm struck, the team crowdsourced damage. All of this appeared on an easy-to-use interactive map.

COMMUNITY CONNECTIONS: Nextdoor, the social network that aims to connect you with your weird neighbor who sits on his porch with beer and binoculars, can be super handy during a disaster. During Irma, mine included helpful posts from my county government, offers of help from neighbors with generators and weirdly comprehensive lists of damage. Some of these might prove to be great sources for stories before or after a disaster. You have to verify your address, which can take a few days, so try to sign up before you need to use it. Of course, local news stations will always have the most pertinent and trustworthy information for your area. Many, like the News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, choose to drop their paywalls during disasters.

INFORMATION: When it comes to reliable information about storms, there’s no better place to turn than the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA’s National Hurricane Center is the source of those handy charts you’ve probably seen all over TV and social media. In fact, if you see one with incredible information, it’s worth checking back on the NHC site to see if it’s real — the internet was awash with fake images during Irma. NOAA automatically pushes alerts to most smartphones during emergencies (no signup required).

  • The Google Crisis Map tracks multiple types of disasters on one map, including hurricanes, floods, fires, rainstorms and manmade incidents. It’s more interactive than most of NOAA’s map, which is useful when you’re looking for specific details that you might need to zoom to see.
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency maintains an app with emergency safety tips and a map of nearby shelters and recovery centers. If you’re covering a disaster and conditions worsen, knowing the location of the closest shelter could be life or death information.

ANALYSIS: There’s no shortage of experts and armchair meteorologists offering hot takes about the weather (the real American pastime). For more restrained analysis, I most often turn to hobbyist Mike Boylan. Boylan runs a, erm, lively website called SpaghettiModels.com that curates charts and graphs from legitimate weather sources across the globe. He also livestreams on Mike’s Weather Page on Facebook several times a day during major storms, dissecting the latest charts and answering audience questions. I admire Boylan’s tendency to push preparedness without being alarmist, and his constant reminders that he’s a hobbyist and to listen to the experts. Another site, Tropical Tidbits, is run by a Florida State University graduate meteorology student who has been tracking storms since 2002. Tropical Tidbits offers more concise, no-nonsense hurricane information.

COMMUNICATION: With South Carolina’s governor already ordering coastal evacuations, it looks like many newsrooms will be working remotely. This is the time that tools like Slack, Google Hangouts (or Meet), Zoom and Skype really come in handy. Zello can also be handy to keep in constant contact with colleagues, friends and family without having to maintain an open connection. Zello works like a walkie-talkie — push to send a message, and others with the channel open will receive it instantaneously. Messages are also backed up for later listening.

PHYSICAL TECH: Zello is useless when the Wi-Fi and cell networks crash, which can happen both because of water or wind damage and overloaded networks (common along highway evacuation routes). Battery-powered physical walkie-talkies are a better choice. After evacuating, I got a lot of use out of my smart home devices, which I used to monitor the power situation at my house. And a NOAA radio with a hand crank can provide up-to-the-minute weather news and power phones and other devices.

Looking for more hurricane coverage tips? Thanks to its prime Florida location, Poynter is well-acquainted with covering big storms. Be safe.

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