MIAMI — Nobody is going to push the "like" button for a hurricane, but the National Hurricane Center hopes to get some Facebook fans for its storm advisories.
The hurricane center joined the social network in January to give a behind-the-scenes look at director Bill Read and hurricane specialists at work well before any storm starts brewing.
The new outreach effort comes as the nation's emergency management chief urges Americans to make social media part of their disaster preparedness plans.
People should know which local agencies disseminate information on Twitter or Facebook, and they should set aside extra batteries or solar chargers so that even in a power outage they can update their status with a simple "I'm okay."
That can help reduce the volume of phone calls in a disaster-stricken area, leaving vital communication lines open, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate testified May 5 before a Senate subcommittee.
Fugate also urges local emergency managers to develop mobile websites to be viewed on cell phones, so that residents can both receive and contribute real-time updates during a disaster.
"Rather than trying to convince the public to adjust to the way we at FEMA communicate, we must adapt to the way the public communicates by leveraging the tools that people use on a daily basis," Fugate said.
FEMA maintains 16 separate accounts on Twitter alone, including Fugate's individual feed, in addition to Facebook and YouTube accounts.
The National Weather Service, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Florida Division of Emergency Management also are among the federal and state agencies that post severe weather updates, warnings, videos, behind-the-scenes photos and other graphics on the major social media channels.
Justin Kenney, communications director for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, tweets on his individual account about the agency's marine, weather and climate research, along with interesting tidbits of information related to severe weather news, such as aerial images of recent tornado damage in Alabama.
Social media channels help the NOAA update the public about events such as a pod of pilot whales stranding in the Florida Keys, even after those events stop being breaking news, he says.
The informal posts often also boost traffic to the NOAA's official website. One such spike was recorded after animations illustrating Japan's tsunami in March were posted on its YouTube channel and relayed on Twitter, Kenney said.
"Yes, there's a lot of information that's useful as one-time information, but I think it's useful to try to continue the conversation," Kenney said.
The hurricane center's Facebook page supplements its website, e-mail alerts and a mobile website for cell phones. Posts so far have showcased hurricane hunter aircraft, individual forecasters and the center's reports on the 2010 hurricane season.
By posting a link to an updated preparedness guide or writing a note about how much storm track forecasts have improved in recent years, shrinking the "cone of uncertainty," officials are trying to address concerns and answer questions well before coastal residents need to consider evacuating, said hurricane specialist Dan Brown.
Starting June 1, the official start of the Atlantic hurricane season, daily updates about conditions in the tropics will be posted on the Facebook page.
"When there is a threat you'll see an increase in our postings. We'll talk about watches and warnings, but truly what I think it's going to be is directing people to our website for all our storm information," Brown said.
Hurricane center officials say that by engaging the public informally through Facebook, they hope to combat complacency in coastal residents skeptical of storm warnings and evacuation advisories after five years without a major hurricane making a U.S. landfall.
The bottom line of most postings is "be prepared," urging readers not to join the millions who don't stock up on nonperishable food or water until a storm is imminent, stressing the system and risking the possibility of having to recover from a hurricane with few or no resources.