September 11, 2017

This article originally appeared in Try This! — Tools for Journalism, our newsletter about digital tools. Want bite-sized news, tutorials and ideas about the best digital tools for journalism in your inbox every Monday? Sign up here.

I’m writing to you from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where I am “hunkered down” (may we never hear that phrase again) as Hurricane Irma’s remnants blow over. Watching Irma take aim at Florida, evacuating and worrying about friends who decided to stay was a harrowing experience. But a few tools apps and websites helped. I hope you never have to use them, but bookmark them in case you do.

Denis Phillips: I’m sure the chief meteorologist at ABC Action News (WFTS) was informative on television, but he really shined on Facebook with sobering updates without much alarmism. It’s a good reminder that local weatherpeople are more than just pretty faces in front of green screens. Find yours and follow them. (h/t Lizz Hutcherson) 

Facebook Live: Facebook maintains a map of all Facebook Live streams. That means there were verified, geotagged (and, since it’s Facebook, embeddable) videos from all over Irma’s area of impact, from Turks and Caicos to Tallahassee. 

Facebook Messenger: Cell coverage gets pretty spotty when you’re in a massive traffic jam in the middle of nowhere. When texting became unreliable, Facebook Messenger was invaluable. The app notifies you when it’s connected, when a message has successfully sent and when others have seen your message. As annoying as group messages can be, I recommend setting up groups of family, friends or colleagues in advance so you’re ready when you need to be.

FL511: The traffic, gas scarcity and sense of impending doom made the evacuation miserable, to say the least. Now a possibly unprecedented number of people have to do it in reverse. Here’s a handy map, maintained by the Florida Department of Education, that shows road conditions and hazards. 

GasBuddy: There’s nothing more terrifying than passing a series of darkened gas stations when your tank is running dry. GasBuddy was crucial for finding open stations (at least when internet access wasn’t spotty). (h/t Joy Mayer)

Local TV apps: Watching local news from Atlanta’s WSB-TV and Orlando’s WFTV apps was the only way to keep up on local TV news when power started to fail. (h/t Kari Cobham)

Mike’s Weather Page and Tampa Bay resident Mike Boylan couldn’t find a reliable weather website in 2004. So he made his own. Boylan’s Facebook Live streams — several per day, at the peak of the storm — dissect the best charts, maps and graphics from the National Hurricane Center and translate confusing spaghetti models and other forecasts into plain English. 

National Hurricane Center: The NHC's extra features (the cone map is only so useful after a while) and the Hurricane Irma forecast discussion were the de-facto source for scientifically accurate information during this storm. (h/t Nathaniel Lash and Catie Hayslip)

The New Tropic: The Miami-based news startup launched an interactive map with information about where to find gas, water and other supplies. I talked with Rebekah Monson, co-founder of The New Tropic, about the tool her team used to make the map and what her team’s plans were for riding out the storm.

Nextdoor: This neighborhood-based social network is usually smothered in requests for contractor recommendations, complaints about “sketchy looking” people (I know, I know) and pleas to find lost pets. But my county government used Nextdoor to great effect to push out pertinent advice and information before, during and after the storm struck. It’s worth signing up. Do it soon, though. You have to verify your address, which involves several steps if you’re a renter.

Piper NV: A few months ago, I installed a small home security camera to monitor my dogs during the day. As I drove to Alabama, I used it to check in on my doors and windows and whether we still had power. There are a lot of similar devices out there, but I chose the Piper NV ($230) for its lack of a service fee and ease of use. 

Reddit: The folks at r/TropicalWeather and r/VolunteerLiveTeam put together a Reddit live thread with nearly minute-by-minute updates. 

Slack: The area of St. Petersburg where Poynter’s waterfront office is located was evacuated on Friday morning. Then much of the Poynter staff evacuated North. We kept working. Slack has been an absolute necessity to keep in touch.

Snapchat: Seriously. Snapchat’s global map feature allows you to see public snaps from all over the country. To use it, pinch inward on the main photo screen and zoom to the area you want to see. Available snaps will appear as a heat map. (h/t Stephen Marth)

Tampa Bay Times: I might be a little biased (OK, a lot biased) here because many of my friends work for the Times (and Poynter owns the Tampa Bay Times), but the newspaper has done a stellar job of covering Irma’s big and small impacts on Florida. From rescued manatees and disappearing bays to what to do in the wake of the storm, the Times had Tampa Bay covered.

Tropical Tidbits: Levi Cowan has been tracking tropical storms since 2002 and is currently a graduate meteorology student at Florida State University. He also runs one of the most comprehensive and no-nonsense hurricane websites out there. 

Zello: We’ve written about how rescuers used this walkie-talkie app to save people from floodwaters during Hurricane Harvey. Several of my friends and I formed a caravan to evacuate Florida and used Zello to keep in touch the whole way. We pointed out hazards, hunted for gas and found roadside bathrooms. It made the experience much safer.

Did I miss an app that you found invaluable? Let me know. Until next week, stay safe out there.

Editor's note: This is the latest in a series of articles that highlight digital tools for journalists. You can read the others here. Got a tool we should talk about? Let Ren know! Learn more about journalism tools with Try This! — Tools for Journalism. Try This! is powered by Google News Lab. It is also supported by the American Press Institute and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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Ren LaForme is the Managing Editor of He was previously Poynter's digital tools reporter, chronicling tools and technology for journalists, and a producer for…
Ren LaForme

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