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Hurricane Series: How Technology Has Changed Since Last Hurricane

Screenshot of AlertFlorida at http://flgetaplan.com/

By Laura Cardona and Marie Edinger

More than a decade has passed since Florida was last struck by a hurricane, and a lot has changed since then.

There were no iPhones or Twitter the last time a hurricane hit the state in 2005. Facebook was mostly relegated to university campuses.

Now, with the popularity of smartphones and mobile apps, people are able to receive weather alerts through social media much differently than they did 10 years ago — but not everyone has a smartphone.

The Florida Division of Emergency Management aims to bridge that gap with a new service called AlertFlorida. It’s an initiative created to provide statewide emergency information to Florida residents, businesses and visitors, according to a FDEM press release.

Bryan Koon, Director of FDEM, said large chunks of the state did not have the ability to communicate weather danger alerts to its citizens, but that this new system should serve as a baseline capability across the state.

“We want to meet you where you are. We don’t want to force you to utilize Twitter alerts if you don’t use Twitter,” he said. “We rather you get a cellphone call or get a text message.”

Users can choose their preferred language and methods for receiving alerts, including text messaging, voice calls, mobile device apps, email and TDD/TTY messaging (communications devices for deaf individuals). AlertFlorida will also post social media alerts and interface directly with broadcast-based alerting systems.

The total cost of the system is $12 million over 40 months, and is being paid for by FDEM using state and federal funds.

However, the system, which is being launched in several counties in its initial phase, cannot predict whether a particular storm will have destructive effects in certain areas. Koon said areas like Dixie County are prone to flooding after heavy storms.

“Dixie County — great place to be, but a large chunk of the county can flood. And by the time it’s flooding it’s going to be too late,” he said.

That is exactly what happened to Amanda Ford, a resident of Cross City in Dixie County. After a particularly devastating rainstorm flooded her home, she and her family were forced to move into the barbershop she runs.

“It was madness. It was really heartbreaking, too, you know. I didn’t get a lot of help from county officials, city officials, none of that — it was a lot of friends and local people that came in, my customers, that pulled together and helped us,” she said.

Another family in the neighborhood also found refuge in the little barbershop, which has been in Ford’s family for generations.

Ford now monitors social media and weather apps for severe storm alerts, but said at the time her home flooded, she did not have a way to receive alerts on severe weather. This is one of the main concerns for emergency management officials, especially during a hurricane.

Richard Knabb, Director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Hurricane Center in Miami, worries that too much technology can be a bad thing.

“A lot of folks who have grown up with technology from the get go often don’t think about how important the lack of power is going to be after a storm and the lack of connectivity is going to be,” he said.

Hurricane season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30. AlertFlorida is optional, meaning counties can choose whether or not they want to adopt the system.

It has already been implemented in several counties, including Marion, Clay, Lafayette, Escambia, Gulf, Indian River, Hillsborough, and Nassau.

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