How apps and social media help Floridians get through Irma

Whether people were directed to evacuate or stock up on supplies and remain indoors, mobile technologies along with Twitter and Facebook became essential communication channels.

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey’s destruction in and around Houston, residents across Florida prepared for Hurricane Irma.

Instead of persuading people to use phone numbers instead of the internet—such as the Coast Guard did after Harvey hit—Florida officials embraced social media and mobile technology to prepare for Irma, especially in areas where evacuation was necessary.

Crowdsourced information via mobile apps

A few apps became crucial sources of information as fuel and other supplies ran low.

On Thursday, TechCrunch reported:

Speaking at a press conference this morning, Florida Governor Rick Scott told state residents to turn to apps and other online resources, including Gas Buddy, Google Maps, Expedia and Comcast’s Xfinity Wi-Fi hotspot finder, to help them find fuel, navigate safely, and stay connected both ahead of and following Hurricane Irma’s arrival.

GasBuddy also asked retail gasoline chains to update their stations’ information so that those preparing for Irma could know where to get fuel.

Ars Technica reported:

… The app helped locals search for well-stocked gas stations in the days leading up to Irma, earning an endorsement from Florida Governor Rick Scott last week. On Thursday it was downloaded 350,000 times, up from the app’s usual 30,000 installations, according to the Wall Street Journal.

GasBuddy even sent two of its gas analysts to Florida’s state capitol to help lawmakers there figure out where to direct relief gas supplies. The company, which was founded in 2000, has previous experience disseminating information during crises like superstorm Sandy in 2012, and the recent Hurricane Harvey in Texas.

Zello, a free walkie-talkie app, also saw an influx of downloads as people prepared for the incoming storm.

PC Magazine reported:

The app, an alternative to texting that lets you have public and private conversations via Wi-Fi or cellular data, raked in one million new users every day since last Monday, Zello CEO Bill Morris told Recode. During that time, Zello has shot to the top of Apple’s US App Store, where it is now the top free app.

Most of the app’s new users are from Puerto Rico and Florida who signed up as a preparation for Hurricane Irma, according to Zello Founder and CTO Alexey Gavrilov. People have used it to coordinate group efforts to retrieve supplies, gas, and prepare their houses for the wind and rain. You can also use Zello to find and connect with local search and rescue channels, or create your own — as many in Texas have done following Hurricane Harvey.

Official social media accounts spread information

Along with apps that shared crowdsourced information to prepare for Irma’s impact, government organizations in Florida cities such as Key West, Tampa and Orlando turned to Facebook and Twitter to give residents and visitors necessary information.

The City of Key West’s Twitter account and Facebook page helped people evacuate the city:

The official Twitter and Facebook accounts for the City of Tampa shared information on its own profiles, as well as on other government officials’ social media feeds:

Official social media accounts for government and utility organizations in Orlando also provided information and directions:

To ensure Florida residents have access to social platforms and websites, Comcast offered free internet across the state through Sept. 15. It opened more than 137,000 Xfinity Wi-Fi hotspots, which anyone—even non-Xfinity customers—can access in two-hour sessions.

NBC 6 in Miami also published an article explaining how to use your Facebook and Twitter accounts through text messages, in case residents’ internet service was cut off.


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