Houston Chronicle & Hurricane Ike: Weathering the Storm Online

November 23, 2008
Category: Uncategorized

“Tropical Depression Nine” was born Sept. 1 2008 in the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean. It was rapidly dubbed “Tropical Storm Ike,” the ninth named storm of 2008. Within a day and a half, it was upgraded to Hurricane Ike and began heading toward Cuba and the Gulf of Mexico.

At the Houston Chronicle, our science blogger Eric Berger began tracking Tropical Depression Nine on Sept. 1 in his SciGuy blog. He also investigated multiple models for Ike’s path through the gulf.

Our Web department began creating blogs and new sections for Chron.com that covered storm preparation, evacuation zones, storm surge flood maps, photo galleries, current weather conditions.

When the storm was a day away (and the probability of a direct hit on Houston was nearly certain) we aggregated several hurricane-related RSS feeds together for our mobile site. We also set up the Chronhurricane Twitter account to broadcast our updates to whomever was following.

Berger also began hosting live chats about the storm surge, potential flooding, evacuation procedures, etc. Under normal circumstances, only a few hundred people typically join our live chats. But these chats attracted about 14,000 participants. Many people asked Berger: “Should I evacuate?” “Should I tape my windows?” “What about my pets?” These chats were far more successful than we anticipated.

By Friday night (a day before the hurricane made landfall) we sent several employees to a disaster recovery bunker 30 miles northwest of Houston to prepare for the worst scenario. If we lost power to our main servers we could fall over to our backup Web servers in our bunker.

Our daily Web traffic had doubled since Monday to nearly 10 million page views per day — and it was still climbing. During peak traffic, we were serving nearly a million page views per hour. I’d never seen numbers climb this quickly in the 10 years I have been working online.

We were seeing huge increases in traffic referrers from national sites linking to us for local coverage. Luckily, most of the traffic was hitting our content distribution network and not our own Web servers.

On the morning of Saturday, Sept. 13, Ike made landfall on the Gulf Coast — a strong Category 2 hurricane with wind speeds reaching 110 mph (according to the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, Category 3 wind speeds begin at 111 mph). At the Houston Chronicle offices, we had a skeleton crew watching over the servers and updating our site as the storm blasted the coast.

As the storm devastated Galveston Island 50 miles south of Houston, we quickly received video, photos, and stories from reporters embedded on the island. Our Web traffic continued to climb with each passing hour.

When the outer bands of the hurricane reached us a few hours later, over three million people lost power in the Houston area. Hurricane-force winds downed trees and knocked out power, phone, and water service across a wide swath of south Texas. The devastation caused over five million people to lose utilities on the Texas Gulf coast.

Because of the power outages in the Gulf coast, much of our Web traffic on those first few days was national. However, our mobile site traffic soared immediately. Local people were surfing from their phones because that was all they had available.

Downtown Houston and the Houston Medical Center were partially spared the loss of utilities because both areas have underground lines, protecting them from wind damage. This is also why the Houston Chronicle never lost power.

Our editorial team reacted quickly to the public need for information. In the days following the storm, they developed several location-based mapping databases. Our readers populated these to track power outages, gasoline supplies, reopened businesses, and the location of FEMA distribution “pods”. This was one the best examples of crowdsourced database creation for disaster relief that I have ever seen.

The Houston Chronicle’s Web traffic swelled to nearly five times normal during the week following Hurricane Ike. This presented an additional problem for our sales staff. Advertisers who purchased a block of ad impressions to last an entire week were blowing through them in a single day (or several hours in some cases). Our sales staff swung into action and began selling much larger packages of discounted ad impressions to prevent this additional traffic from going to waste.

Our elevated traffic patterns and long office hours lasted for several weeks, while some staff lived at work (quite literally). Many of us didn’t have power or water at home for several weeks after the storm. Every day was “Casual Friday.”

On a personal note, we received  a lot of positive  feedback via social  media and the blogging  community for our efforts surrounding Hurricane Ike. Instant feedback and an open dialog with the community are becoming necessary parts of every news organization. Sometimes the feedback isn’t always flattering. However, we were pleasantly surprised by the responses we got.

Let’s hope it’s a few years before we have to do it again.