Weather, disaster agencies turn to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube

Public agencies find new tools on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

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Jen Longaecker of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety will help moderate the #mnflood2013 hashtag on Twitter.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii , Star Tribune

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With the season for quick-hitting storms about to barge into Minnesota, social media are about to become a key news tool.

Indeed, public agencies concerned with natural disasters are glomming onto social media like so many teenagers, attracted to its instant, two-way connectivity.

“It’s fast. It’s direct. It enhances our ability to deliver the message,” said Bruce Gordon, director of communications for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, whose 12 public information officers post breaking news, safety tips and even human interest stories on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

The Twin Cities office of the National Weather Service, while moving cautiously, has found social media to be a valuable new source of weather observations, often using reports from the public to check the accuracy of forecasts, storm reports and even radar.

“In a fair number of cases, they send a picture, with hail in the palm of someone’s hand, or there’s a ruler by it,” said Dan Luna, meteorologist in charge at the Twin Cities weather service office. “It helps us validate that the warning was appropriate. That’s really exciting.”

Since joining Facebook in 2011, the office has been “liked” 6,000 times. Just this week, Shawn DeVinny, who might be called the agency’s social meteorologist, posted a request for measurements of frost depth across southern Minnesota and western Wisconsin, since the office had only a half-dozen of the readings that can help with flood predictions. A day after posting, 54 people had contributed measurements.

“We’re very, very happy,” DeVinny said.

What’s possible? After a recent blizzard, the Kansas City weather service office saw its Facebook “likes” jump from 7,000 to 20,000, De Vinny said. A video of the same blizzard outside the Amarillo, Texas, office reached 700,000 people — more than triple the number of residents in that office’s forecast area.

Gordon noted that social media allow his agency to control the content, timing and distribution of its message to a degree it can’t with news releases and news conferences. It also forwards information from cities, counties and other agencies, amplifying those messages to reach 6,000 Twitter followers and 4,000 Facebook fans. As a result, during intense events, tweeting and updating on Facebook and YouTube “has a breaking news feel to it,” he said. “It’s the same intensity and rush.”

Public information officer Jennifer Longaecker joined the Department of Public Safety in January with years of experience as a 911 dispatcher and as a news reporter for three regional newspapers. During a January blizzard, she posted a story on Facebook about a State Patrol officer and a snowplow driver who rescued a family that had been stuck in their vehicle for eight hours. The story was “liked” by more than 1,000 readers and “seen” by, which means delivered to, more than 13,000.

The cities of Fargo and Moorhead are finding social media to be valuable once again in the run-up to yet another expected spring flood. They’re posting data on snow melt, weather forecasts, public meetings, sandbagging efforts, road closures and other concerns.

However, this season the Twin Cities weather service office will not be using Facebook to post warnings for quick-developing storms, because it issues so many warnings in those situations, DeVinny said. It is considering using Twitter, however, since that involves more short-term material.

Mixed blessing?

Meteorologist Paul Douglas, a pioneer in weather communications and technology (and columnist for the Star Tribune), said he regards social media as “a mixed blessing” — allowing for quick alerts and widespread sharing of storm details, but also providing a forum for misinformation.

“Increasingly, the research shows that if people get conflicting information, they’re more likely to do nothing,” Douglas said, adding that weather professionals are striving to make weather warnings both more accurate and less frequent.

Storm chasers have found social media to be so valuable that many of them have abandoned the use of websites for posting information about storms in progress, said Twin Cities chaser Nick Elms. For the general public, particularly younger, social-media-savvy people, Twitter and Facebook may be replacing more traditional weather information media.

“The younger generation is not going to Radio Shack and spending $60 for a weather radio,” Elms said.

But one of the nation’s best-known tornado chasers, Josh Wurman, founder of the Center for Severe Weather Research in Boulder, Colo., doesn’t even have a Facebook page. Twitter and other information-swapping tools can pull gawkers, commercial chasers and others into the way of law enforcement and researchers during storms, said Wurman, one of the lead researchers in the Vortex2 project that sent hundreds of scientists across the Great Plains in 2009 and 2010.

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