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Hurricane forecasters, emergency officials using Facebook, Twitter and other social media

New to the world of social media, the National Hurricane Center at first had few fans.

At the beginning of last year's hurricane season, a mere 5,000 people "liked" the NHC's Facebook page. That's about 77,000 fewer fans than Singing in the Shower.

Then came Irene.

The first major storm of the 2011 hurricane season, Hurricane Irene formed on Aug. 21 in the Caribbean Sea, made landfall in Puerto Rico and churned toward the United States with winds that reached 120 mph.

In the days that followed, the National Hurricane Center gained 68,000 Facebook "likes," peaking with 16,000 on Aug. 25, the day North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue declared a state of emergency and ordered evacuations from two counties.

Today, the NHC boasts more than 127,000 Facebook fans. It expects to gain even more this hurricane season, which begins June 1.

"Social media is continuing to grow by leaps and bounds," said hurricane center spokesman Dennis Feltgen. "People using Facebook or Twitter may not be glued to the TV set or the radio. It's another way of reaching folks."

But local emergency management officials haven't seen the same response.

Last year, Pinellas County Emergency Management had about 1,100 Twitter followers. Today, it has about 1,700. Hillsborough County boasts just more than 700 followers. Even combined, the two counties are far from rivaling the 45,000 users who follow the NHC.

Although the NHC is a national organization that addresses an audience far beyond the Tampa Bay area, local officials said the biggest driver of social media response is catastrophe.

"I guarantee if there's a threat, that number will jump," said Pinellas County Emergency Management spokesman Tom Iovino. "We know at that last minute people will start following if or when there's an emergency. So, we want to already be there, prepared."

Although Florida is the most hurricane-prone state in the country, with 114 hurricanes hitting the state since 1851, Tampa Bay hasn't suffered a direct hit from a hurricane in 91 years.

Tampa Bay residents have been lucky. So lucky, Iovino said, they don't have to follow local emergency management organizations as closely as other areas that have suffered direct assaults from hurricanes or tropical storms.

"We haven't had to go through an emergency where we've had to use social media," said Hillsborough County Emergency Management spokesman Willie Puz. "We want to be active and connected. But I hope we don't have to rely on our social media platform during the hurricane season."

They have their strategies, though — just in case.

NHC officials use social media as a means to broadcast and track information, Feltgen said. But they're hesitant to engage in conversations or broadcast unverified first-hand accounts.

"We don't want the message going off on a tangent, Feltgen said. "We don't want to lose control of the message."

Pinellas County, which is exploring branching out to social media newcomer Pintrest, views these websites as a means to start conversations.

"We can get information from people out in the field, like, 'This is what my house looks like.' " Iovino said. "That helps us on the intelligence-gathering part. And the more information we have, the better able we are to shoot it out to everyone — fast."

Hillsborough County uses social media to monitor what people are talking about, while gauging the accuracy of those conversations.

"It's our job to get the most accurate information out there," Puz said. "In the event of an emergency, we can use these avenues to help control rumors, connect families, help reassure people of their property being safe."

But these plans are tentative, Puz said, largely because there has not been an emergency to test them.

"Honestly, I hope that we don't have to use our social media platform during the hurricane season," he said. "But we want to be ahead of the curve. Just in case."

Marissa Lang can be reached at mlang@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386.

Hurricane forecasters, emergency officials using Facebook, Twitter and other social media 05/18/12 [Last modified: Friday, May 18, 2012 1:53pm]

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