Hurricane communications planned year-round

When a hurricane threatens the US, groups like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and local and national emergency management teams must spring into action to communicate to their constituents.

When a hurricane threatens the US, groups like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and local and national emergency management teams must spring into action to communicate to their constituents.

Florida has been ravaged by this year's hurricane season. Not three weeks since Hurricane Charley besieged the state with billions of dollars of damage, it braces for the next hurricane, Frances, which is expect to hit the coast today.

The agencies involved - including their communicators -- train year-round and are ready to strike when a hurricane like Frances hits.

The hurricane season begins in early spring, and the NOAA kicks off the season by flying aircraft on the coast and into any potential storms for testing purposes. NOAA does media outreach around this event, and invites schoolchildren in to see the plane and learn about weather.

"In May, we have a rollout for the hurricane forecast [for the] season, which is arguably one of the highest attended media events," said David Miller, senior public affairs official for NOAA, adding that the agency usually revisits its forecast in mid-August.

"It's almost a year-round process," Miller said, adding that the organization has a wrap-up summary statement in November.

NOAA's focal point for hurricanes is at the national hurricane center on the Miami University campus, where the agency has a year-round, full-time public affairs person.

"We're on the forecast side, but we're just one part of the overall group," Miller said. "When we know a storm like Frances [will] hit, we set up a local and a national broadcast pool."

The key thing is to get the broadcast information out and work closely with the media, Miller said. "Our role is to be the subject-matter experts, so we have [professors] lined up ahead of time, if we have a question on hurricane forecast modeling."

"Prior to any disaster, Mike Stone, the public information officer at the Florida Division of Emergency Management (FDEM), works and creates strategic plans for [it], said Cragin Mosteller, a spokeswoman for the agency.

Before the storm hits, the state agency reaches out to the television, print, and radio media to focus on evacuation messages.

In the current case, FDEM director Craig Fugate has been quoted in a number of articles leading up to Frances. The agency also has Frances updates and tracking charts, as well as links to more information, on its website, floridadisaster.org.

When the emergency-operations center decides it needs to go into action, an emergency support function is turned on and the public information center springs into action.

"We operate an emergency operations line and communicate with the media," Mosteller said.

NOAA's Miller stresses the importance of communicating first to the "folks that are literally and figuratively in harm's way."

NOAA also sends additional public affairs officers to go down to the hurricane center to lend a hand, while maintaining its staff at national headquarters in Washington, DC.

"The hurricane center is the focal point, but they would be inundated if we didn't [help]," Miller said.

In addition to the media outreach, the agency tries to direct citizens to its website, www.noaa.gov.

"Our Internet traffic spikes dramatically during incidents like this," Miller said.

Currently, local authorities are primarily handling communications for Frances because Florida has not been declared a federal disaster site. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), part of the Department of Homeland Security, cannot officially act unless Florida Governor Jeb Bush requests federal disaster coverage and President George Bush confers it.

However, Michael Brown, the under secretary of homeland security for emergency preparedness and response and director of FEMA, has been made available for the media. The agency has also made mobile communications units available for telephone, radio, and video links in support of response and recovery efforts.

After the storm ends, FDEM's outreach tends to focus on print and radio, due to the fact that electricity is often down. The post-storm message changes daily depending on the situation.

Both NOAA and FDEM spend plenty of time getting their communications systems in order.

Mosteller said the Florida emergency-management department practices communication plans and drills all year round.

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