Hurricane season officially starts Thursday and this year there are new tools for Tampa Bay residents to use if a storm threatens the region.
Pinellas County residents can now get evacuation information and storm updates through a new app, Ready Pinellas, which went live for iPhones and Android phones on May 23. It aggregates the county's hurricane preparedness resources, like evacuation zones and storm surge levels, and offers planning checklists and emergency alerts.
"With the app, you'll be able to have your plan in your pocket," said Pinellas County Emergency Management director Sally Bishop.
Pasco County officials on Wednesday unveiled a new emergency alert system, Alert Pasco, that can send voice and text alerts to cell phones and land lines. The mass notification system can be programmed for multiple addresses. Alerts could be sent for weather events that could affect schools, businesses or assisted living facilities.
"You can register multiple addresses (for) family members in schools, nursing homes and day cares," said Pasco Emergency Services director Kevin Guthrie. This way those who don't live in Pasco can monitor the areas of the county where their family members live.
Guthrie demonstrated the new service by using the county's MyPasco app, which is available for iPhones and Android phones. The app can also sends residents weather alerts, and they can use the app or a website to register for Alert Pasco.
Although the information available through the Ready Pinellas app is already available through the county's website and printed guides, Assistant County Administrator John Bennett said the county hopes to reach a wider audience through smartphones.
"Hopefully the gap between, 'I ought to do something about this,' and 'I need to do something about this,' gets smaller when the solution rides on your hip," he said.
Using location services, the app will display storm information specific to where ever the user is. The app can also be used to build evacuation plans and request assistance if needed, such as transportation for children, the elderly or the disabled. It also connects to the National Hurricane Center and Pinellas County's Twitter account.
The Tampa Bay area has been insulated from a direct hurricane strike for almost a century now, but officials hope last year will convince residents not to be complacent. Florida had gone 11 years without a hurricane making landfall until Hermine did so in September. Then in October, Hurricane Matthew battered the east coast.
Bennett said people often don't think ahead of a storm until it's at their door. In a county like Pinellas, with 50,000 new residents a year and a high influx of visitors, the population is particularly vulnerable.
Another new factor to consider is that the National Hurricane Center has updated its storm surge models this hurricane season, which means evacuation zones have changed to include even more residents. In Pinellas County, for instance, the new data shows worst-case storm surge could be 6 feet higher than the old models predicted.
That's why the Pinellas Ready app could be especially useful to those who have never weathered a storm before, Bennett said.
This is only the first iteration of the app, and modifications are in the works. Down the line, the county hopes to be able to send push notifications and offer the app in different languages. Right now, it's only available in English with a link to an informational page in Spanish.
Bennett said Pinellas will share the coding so other counties can create their own emergency preparedness app.
"This wasn't built specifically for the needs of Pinellas County," Bennett said. "The whole state needs it."
Contact Taylor Telford at [email protected] or (513) 376-3196. Follow @taylormtelford.