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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

How Do You Warn 8 Million New Yorkers (Another) Tornado May Hit NYC Any Minute? 4 Suggestions: More Info, Text Alert Signups, Media Cooperation, Practice

September 18th, 2010 · No Comments

On Thursday night, twin tornadoes and a microburst went through New York City killing one person, ripping out 150 trees and damaging a number of cars and homes.

Tornadoes are clearly not typical here in the Big Apple — though we had a similar if less serious incident with them earlier in the summer. But it does raise the question how much new preparedness attention should this hazard receive from the government, public and media going forward. I think there are four things (below) that can be done, which will improve citizen awareness and readiness without making too much of a big deal out of what will likely continue to be the exception rather than the rule here.

On Thursday afternoon, I happened to be in the hospital when I received this text alert from NotifyNYC:

Alert issued 9/16/10 at 5:35 PM. The National Weather Service has issued a Tornado Warning until 6:00 PM in Staten Island and Brooklyn. Immediately go indoors and/or to the lowest floor of your building for shelter. Stay away from windows.

Similar to the previous incident earlier in the summer, there had not much media warning about the possibility of major weather though the forecast was inclement. As I wrote earlier (below), those emergency instructions in the text message may be familiar to those in the Midwest but not in New York. In fact, my guess is that most New Yorkers who received this notification followed instructions to move to their lowest floor or stay away from windows in large part because we’re not used to doing so.

Also, though the message was being sent out through text/e-mail only a minority of City residents (approximately 50,000) are subscribed to NotifyNYC, and not all traditional news outlets were distributing that same message. It’s a real challenge for the Office of Emergency Management: you don’t want spend too much time warning New Yorkers about a rare threat, and yet when it is dangerous when it does come (and you may not have much time to get the word out.)

So, from this situation and the previous incident, I would have four recommendations:

* put a little more public information/attention on tornado, twisters, strong winds without making too much of a big deal of it (integrate it into other related shelter-in-place/evacuation instructions);

* use this experience to emphasize to New Yorkers that to have the most up to date emergency information for you, your family and your workplace, sign up for e-mail/text warnings from NotifyNYC;

* government officials should work closer with the news media to make sure the communications messages are aligned and robust, particularly when surprise events occur; and

* maybe some limited practice or drilling — integrated into fire safety, shelter-in-place/evacuation — would be useful.

Tornado damage in Brooklyn (Photo: C. Voegel, The Gothamist)

Below is my case study/post from earlier in the summer, which comes to most of the same conclusions:

On Friday evening at 8:19 PM, I received the following notification (via both text and e-mail) from New York City’s NotifyNYC alert system:

“Alert issued 7/23/10 at 8:20 PM. The National Weather Service has issued a Tornado Warning until 9:00 PM for Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx. Immediately go indoors and/or to the lowest floor of your building for shelter. Stay away from windows.”

Though thunderstorms had been predicted, a tornado warning — along with the urgent and specific instructions — was a bit of a surprise. I am sure I was not the only New York apartment dweller receiving a NotifyNYC alert that was a little perplexed what to do. Should we all actually be going to the lobby of our buildings? Should we be warning our neighbors (who aren’t signed up for the City’s alerts) to do so as well?

I happened to be watching television — “Friday Night Lights,” appropriately it turned out, as thunder was flashing through the Gotham sky. The local affiliate, WNBC-TV, cut into the show to announce the tornado warning. The meteorologist did not recommend any of the preventive actions mentioned in the NotifyNYC alert, though a scroll on the screen was suggesting that the safest place to be in a tornado was a basement, closet or hallway.

It was an example of how e-mail/text alerts can effectively relay immediate information directly to citizens no matter where they are. (And that people should be signing up for these free notifications.) But only a relatively small percentage of New Yorkers are enrolled (approximately 50,000 subscribers) so Friday night there was an information gap between those who receive the alerts and those who get their emergency information from the news media.

‘Friday night lights’ over Manhattan but no tornado (photo by Richard Caplan/WNBC)

Friday evening when the National Weather Service issued the tornado alert, the City’s Office of Emergency Management (NYC-OEM) faced an interesting (and new) communications policy question: should it send out the information (and the safety instructions) in a limited alert format to subscribers, which were going to come as an out of the blue surprise to us? (Tornado response may be second nature in the Midwest but not in Manhattan.). It would also mean that subscribers were going to know more than about it than the rest of the public.

I think they made the right decision to distribute the alert. However, the City also needs to make sure that whatever emergency information it is sending out through the e-mail/text NotifyNYC system that the same message is being communicated through the news media, which is still the main information medium for most of the public. Friday night, the messaging was not totally aligned.

It turned out that a tornado did not end up touching down in the Big Apple Friday night. But I thought this was an interesting case study of how government is disseminatjng emergency news to the public with its new tools. In fact, I would recommend the City’s OEM highlight this example publicly as a reason why more people should sign up for these alerts so they have the most updated information in a potential crisis situation.

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Tags: City Preparedness · Preparedness 2.0

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