Services & Software

A social-media guide to dealing with Hurricane Irene

With a hurricane bearing down on the Northeast, CNET went to a power user to find out the best social outlets for receiving and broadcasting urgent information.

Sixteen-year-old Stephen Ou prefers keyboarding to skateboarding.

This isn't surprising when you learn the high school sophomore is already a serious social-media entrepreneur with six products under his belt, including a premium WordPress editor; an uberfast iTunes search engine with 250,000 users; and TwtRoulette, a sharable Twitter home timeline (Ashton Kutcher is a fan).

Undoubtedly, Ou is what you call a social-media power user. So when CNET asked him for tips on how others can best employ social-media tools when there's a disaster like Hurricane Irene looming--or after an earthquake hits, or during a family emergency--Ou came armed with excellent tips. And that's good, because Ou isn't alone when it comes to looking to social media during a time of crisis.

This week the Red Cross issued a study indicating that Americans are increasingly using social media and mobile tools to track disasters. According to the study, 18 percent of Americans surveyed rely on Facebook for disaster-related information. And 24 percent of Americans polled say they'd turn to Facebook to locate friends and family--and make sure they're OK--when a disaster strikes, while 80 percent of respondents said they expected national emergency response organizations to actively follow social media to respond faster.

Despite its popularity, Ou himself doesn't consider Facebook a "go-to" site for emergencies or disasters (more on that later). He's big on using Twitter for staying up-to-date and for getting the latest breaking news. Here are several real-time Twitter accounts Ou follows for emergencies and disasters:

Serves up news about hurricanes and the tropics--primarily in the Atlantic. Provided by

Provides reports of the latest world earthquakes of magnitude 4.5 or higher, as well as tsunami warnings. Sources: the United States Geological Survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and GEOFON (the Europe-based Geo Research Network).

Continuously tweets news alerts from hundreds of global sources 24 hours a day.

In advance of Hurricane Irene, Twitter itself officially recommends the following accounts:

The Weather Channel's hurricane central account shares the latest updates on Irene's location.

@fema and @CraigatFEMA
Preparation tips and the latest updates on Hurricane Irene, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA also created a list of useful local accounts.

(The attention to local accounts is particularly timely given that this morning New York City's official Web site was inaccessible owing to an onslaught of traffic after an announced mandatory evacuation of the city's lowest-lying areas. That left many people confused about what to do. At publication time, the site is back up and running. Mayor Bloomberg's office is also posting frequent updates by way of its Twitter account, @NYCMayorsOffice.)

Twitter updates via mobile phone
"Fast Follow" is a new Twitter feature that lets anyone with a mobile phone receive updates from a Twitter source. There's no need to be registered with Twitter to access this free service. Preparing for Irene? Heading out to be with friends or family in another safe location? Follow FEMA news flashes on your mobile phone via Twitter: just text "follow fema" to 40404 stateside. This works with any Twitter account, all you need to do is text "follow [username]" to 40404. For more details, see Twitter's post about Fast Follow.

Using Facebook
Facebook, the world's top social network, is probably where most people will turn to find and communicate with loved ones and neighbors--as well as for information on pending or live storms, fires, earthquakes, tsunamis, and other disasters--local or global. But as mentioned, Ou doesn't consider Facebook the best source for up-to-the-minute info.

"Facebook is not as real-time as Twitter, unless you are looking at the 'most recent' stream in your news feed," he says. "Also it's a lot harder to find people and pages that broadcast emergency alerts."

CNET thought so too. So we tapped the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company for help in mining its disaster-related offerings. Check out Facebook's Global Disaster Relief page, as well as the company's new tip sheet "Using Social Media Before, During, and After a Natural Disaster." Still, as detailed and as welcome as these Facebook resources are, it's unclear how the average user would go about finding them without help.

The real benefit of the world's most trafficked social site is communication with those you care about--at scale.

"Facebook allows for personal broadcast," says Mike Germano, president and co-founder of Carrot Creative, a leading social-media marketing shop in Brooklyn, N.Y. "Now people know where you are" or they "can see in real-time what damage looks like on your street."

Related links
• CBS News coverage of Irene
• Riding out the hurricane with your cell phone
• Hurricane will test cell networks
• Track hurricanes on your phone or online

Earlier this week, Facebook hosted a "Facebook D.C. Live" event called "Social Media's Role in Disaster Preparedness & Response," in conjunction with the National Weather Service, the Red Cross, and the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. There, officials discussed how Americans are using social tools in disasters and shared results from the aforementioned Red Cross study.(See infographic at end of story.) The live streamed event is archived at Facebook.

Looking to 3G
Of course, there's a reality check to all this: When the power goes out, so does your computer and your Wi-Fi. During big disasters, cellular networks often get jammed. Data networks, however, are still an option because they can handle more traffic than cellular networks. So, over 3G networks, wireless applications like Facebook, Twitter, and mobile video calling service Tango remain functional.

The other caveat about social networks? They're "a crowded communication service," explains Eric Setton, Tango's CTO and co-founder. "You don't know if the people you are trying to reach actually received your messages." With 3G-ready mobile phones and tablets people can actually see and hear their family and friends.

Social Media in Emergencies