When President Barack Obama urged Americans under siege from Hurricane Sandy to stay inside and keep watch on ready.gov for the latest, he left out something pretty important — where to turn if the electricity goes out.
Despite the heightened expectation of widespread power and cable television failures, everyone from the president to local newscasters seem to expect the public to rely entirely on the Internet and their TVs for vital news and instructions.
None of the major cable or local news channels put emergency phone numbers or key radio station frequencies on their screens. The only phone-related instructions on the homepage of ready.gov is how to get monthly disaster-prep text messages. The Federal Emergency Management Agency told the public via Twitter to use texts and social media outlets to stay informed.
TV and radio are still the primary methods of getting information about Hurricane Sandy to the public, but social media are increasingly important to those efforts, FEMA chief Craig Fugate said Monday. “With these types of storms, you get a lot of this is going to be carried out through the traditional TV and radio media,” Fugate told reporters on a conference call. “But we’re using a lot more social media, we’re using everything from Facebook to Twitter. I think there’s a higher degree of awareness that people have of the storm is coming and what the impacts are going to be.”
Fugate also talked up battery-operated or hand-cranked radios during interviews on morning news shows.
A call to FEMA’s news desk, however, found even they didn’t have any non-Internet information readily available beyond suggestions that people call 911 in an emergency. When asked where folks should turn for information if they have no power, a FEMA worker said, “Well, those people who have a laptop with a little battery life on it can try that way. Otherwise, you’re right.”
Such blind spots are perilous to the public, experts say. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell did reference during a news conference Monday two useful phone numbers — 211 for guidance on emergency shelter locations and 511 for traffic information — and D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray told News Channel 8 that people should call 311 in storm-related emergencies.
But that’s about it for public information of this type. “That’s a problem,” said Matt Thome, spokesman for the Safe America Foundation, a non-profit disaster preparedness advocacy organization based in Marietta, Ga. “As we get further away from a time when people aren’t relying on smartphones to do everything for them, people are going to lose focus that not everyone’s going to connect to the Internet. What happens when it goes down? That basic level of preparedness has been lost.”
To be sure, millions are indeed going online — while they can — to stay informed. More than 155,000 users watched The Weather Channel’s live stream simultaneously on YouTube by mid-afternoon and thousands more watched live-cam coverage from professional and amateur sources via such sites as livestream.com and ustream.tv. By contrast, a peak of 178,000 users watched the YouTube stream of Obama's Democratic National Convention speech in September.
Facebook reports Sandy is being referenced more than Obama and Romney combined and top hashtags on Twitter included #Sandy, staysafe, Fema, New Jersey and East Coast. Sandy’s nickname “Frankenstorm” — so dubbed by NOAA last week — trended earlier Monday but fell out of fashion as the seriousness of the situation became more evident.
· +Still, in the pre-smartphone era, public officials exhorted people to have a list of emergency phone numbers available and broadcasters displayed them as well as radio frequencies on the screen in the event all else failed.
Ironically, as modern technology becomes more omnipresent, Thome said it's old-fashioned modes of communication that are becoming ever more reliable. People with landlines, for instance, are more likely to continue to have service because the copper phone lines will continue to work even if the electricity goes out — provided telephone poles don’t fall.
“The more basic you get, the technology has fewer areas where breakdown can happen,” Thome said. “It used to be old landlines would get clogged up, but now with so few people having landlines anymore, they’re more likely not to go out.”
National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton said local TV stations were doing impressive work informing the public and reminding them to keep battery-operated radios or TVs on hand.
"In the event of a power outage, it's probably more important for us to have highlighted having access to battery-operated broadcast stations than to direct viewers and listeners to a specific station,” Wharton said.
And another expert, Kim Fuller of the disaster preparedness firm James Lee Witt Associates, said Obama may have avoided issuing phone numbers to prevent call centers from being overwhelmed before the storm.
“President Obama is giving out the Web address only is because you normally don’t hear him saying anything before a disaster strikes,” Fuller said. “So they might be getting a little ahead of themselves. What they don’t want to do is give out a phone number and have people start calling if a federal disaster declaration isn’t even declared for their county.”
The problem with that, Thome said, is that it’ll be too late to provide the information once the disaster is under way.
“Before is better than after,” he said.