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  1. Local Weather

Twitter, Facebook and smartphones replace TV for some Tropical Storm Debby watchers in Tampa Bay area

beach_228052a.jpgShe was riding in a car returning from visiting her mother in Melbourne Sunday night, but Tampa City Councilwoman Lisa Montelione had already seen a photo of someone riding a canoe down Bayshore Boulevard and heard where the squalls from Tropical Storm Debby were headed, long before pulling into her driveway.

That's because Montelione was among the many area media consumers who kept track of the tornado and heavy storms which raked the area Sunday through social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook, in addition to listening to the radio. (photo at right by Tampa Bay Times' Jim Damaske)

"Following Twitter, it just seems like you're getting information faster," said Montelione, who passed along information on area tornado warnings and related brief tales of seeing cars in ditches alongside the road while traveling along Interstate 4, informing more than 500 Twitter followers. "It won't replace live action video, but even if I was home in front of a TV set, I would still be following on Twitter."

Odd as it sounds, Sunday's events were the biggest weather emergency to hit the Tampa Bay area since social media and smartphone apps changed the nature of news consumption in the Tampa Bay area.

"(Social media) is the future of our business," said Denis Phillips, chief meteorologist at ABC affiliate WFTS-Ch. 28, where he conducts live chats streamed online, maintaining active Twitter posts, Facebook pages, a smartphone weather app, continuous reporting for the station's secondary digital TV channel and more.

Phillips said all the new platforms can help reduce the pressure to break into prime time programming outside of imminent emergencies. And his social media effort was mirrored in different ways by most every major local media outlet.

Bay News 9 has an active Twitter page, but the local cable newschannel also drew a huge traditional TV viewership Sunday with continuous reporting by teams of meteorologists, beating all four area broadcast stations in ratings.

Gathering around the television or radio during storms to consume continuous news reports has been a longstanding tradition for some Tampa Bay area residents who remember when storms such as Hurricane Charley or Hurricane Elena came close years ago.

But some of today's media consumers also use social media to track severe weather, seeing updates from official sources quicker and staying connected to news sources even when power fails in their homes.

This story also presented something of a first for me as a media critic. For the first time, I could ask people how they were consuming news about a weather emergency as it was happening on Twitter and Facebook, hearing from people who were hunched over online news sources even as storms passed overhead.

Erin Garcia, 29, the mother of a 3-year-old in Clearwater, wrote in an email to the Tampa Bay Times that she doesn't have TV in her house, so she followed Tampa news radio station WFLA-AM (970) on Twitter along with a few meteorology students.

"Especially when the weather was really bad over my house. I can instantly know if a tornado touches down and my telephone doesn't lose signal or power, like a television would," wrote Garcia, who works as a legal assistant. "Some Twitter news sites tell you the neighborhood a tornado or flood is in so you know exactly when to take cover or know not to go out....I haven't had TV in a few years and I know everything before anyone else in my family. :-)"

timestorm.jpgWhich explains why all local media outlets-- particularly local cable newschannel Bay News 9 and Tampa ABC affiliate WFTS-Ch. 28 -- were actively posting on Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets throughout the day's weather events. The Tampa Bay Times encouraged people to submit photos though the picture sharing service Instagram (sample at left), where many Tampa area folks posted images of flooding and the storm's impact.

And they weren't alone. Jayde Donovan, morning personality at WPOI-FM (Hot 101.5), tweeted: "Holy. Sh#*. Tornado tore the roof off the marina down the street from my house. CRAZY. Damn you, Debby!!!!!!!"

Wrestler Hulk Hogan also tweeted a brief video clip of flooding at his home. WFTS filled its Facebook page with photos of flooding in Palm Harbor and a woman on a raft traveling down the street in Crystal River.

And social media expert Amber Osborne, known as Miss Destructo in the Twitterverse, kept her more than 21,000 Twitter followers informed with a steady stream of messages passed along from area TV and radio stations, newspapers, friends, assorted contacts, Progress Energy and many more information sources.

Tampa resident Geraldine Sanchez, 23, said she tried watching news updates on television, but found the updates were coming too slowly. So the University of South Florida senior consulted Twitter, Facebook and smartphone apps from media outlets such as WFLA-Ch. 8 and The Weather Channel.

"I also found that social media is a lot more reliable and delivers the warnings from all over and news about the storm faster than waiting for them to show up on television," wrote Sanchez in an email, who added in a phone interview she began using social media to track storms while living in California years ago. "Also a great tool for when the lights go out! You just turn on your iPod or cell phone and you're still connected!"

Sanchez said she felt like her method of tracking the storms is the future of information consumption; an important tool, given that Debby is expected to linger in the area until the week's end.

"I remember being younger and just huddling around the television set waiting to see if we were going to get hit by some sort of tornado or severe thunderstorm," she added. "Now, I don't have to rely on just ONE source."