In 2022, hurricanes and floods displaced nearly 3 million people. As the frequency and severity of natural disasters continue to evolve due to climate change, how citizens, enterprises, and government organizations approach safety and resilience must change with it. More critically, this means updating public safety plans to strategically address the specific needs of different groups and areas under one’s care.
However, hurricane response plans are not one-size-fits-all. How certain sections of a city or area must prepare for disaster response may differ from another (think mobile home neighborhoods vs. new home developments) and will require different foresight and resources. Also, vulnerable communities, like persons with physical disabilities, may require additional care, planning, and resource allocation.
It is often misconceived that government agencies have every resource and available piece of knowledge to deploy resources immediately when hurricanes hit. As technology advances, this becomes easier, but it will never be a perfect system. Years of strategy and planning go into crisis response and developing a communication plan that keeps people safe, clearly outlines the situation, and empowers them to act. There are three key factors to a successful communications plan during hurricane season:
- Primary and secondary methods of communication,
- Understanding and acknowledging community members’ needs and diversity, and
- Thoughtful and well-structured templated messages.
Having Primary and Secondary Methods of Communication
Government entities should have two forms of mass communication services to ensure notification of all citizens when there is impending danger. The primary solution should consist of a multi-modal, multi-lingual system that provides outreach to the community through the devices they request to receive alerts on and in the language they will understand. The secondary would be the Integrated Public Alert & Warning System (IPAWS), which provides emergency response agencies the capability to reach all active cellphones in an area while also delivering alerts through the emergency alert system to televisions and radios.
When developing communication best practices, government agencies must also understand the messages they are pushing out and when. Ahead of storms, messages may guide people to websites or include hyperlinks, which work well to provide complete details. As the storm approaches and makes landfall, citizens will have limited service and bandwidth. At this point, communication systems must account for downed power lines and a lack of Wi-Fi and cellular data. Recovery details should be direct and actionable, avoiding the need to click on hyperlinks or view web-posted information, often unavailable to those with limited data connectivity.
Understanding the Diversity of Needs in the Community
In addition to a strategic communications plan, government agencies must survey citizens’ needs and adequately prepare to meet them once a hurricane strikes. Government agencies should clearly communicate systems where citizens should input necessary life-saving details ahead of hurricane season, including state databases, website forms, physical locations, etc. Information to input include but is not limited to:
- Essential medications – For example, are you reliant on oxygen, insulin, or other medications? Do these medications need to be refrigerated?
- Evacuation aide – For example, are you bariatric or blind? Will you need help evacuating your home?
- Accessibility issues – For example, do you have language barriers?
Understanding diversity in the community is also where governments must empower self-advocacy in their citizens. Officials can only know as much as their citizens are willing to disclose – the more they know, the better they can serve the public’s needs. Of course, there will always be challenges in getting citizens to willingly disclose personal information about themselves to government organizations. To work through this as best they can, government officials must clearly explain why they are asking for information and list potential consequences for citizens in an emergency if they do not disclose accessibility issues, such as an inability to receive live-saving resources. It is essential to have an alerting system to inform citizens of critical resources, such as where they can voluntarily register assistance needs ahead of hurricane season. They must also have information available to them year-round to put as much control of their safety in their own hands as possible, which includes:
- Regularly scheduled community preparedness events;
- The ability to register to receive safety alerts;
- Easily navigable government websites for up-to-date information;
- Understandable and clearly communicated evacuation routes; and
- Home preparedness (e.g., preparing to be in isolation for a minimum of 72 hours before assistance may be available, depending on storm severity).
Prepare Thoughtful and Well-Structured Templated Messages to Get Attention
There is a delicate balance between the efficiency of sending out mass notifications and ensuring that the appropriate areas are getting the information most relevant to them. All communication must provide precise details of the specific (or anticipated) impact on each local community with actionable next steps. When they feel that a message was meant for them specifically and will impact them directly, citizens will demonstrate higher action rates. Starting a statement with, “Your residence is in evacuation zone A and under mandatory evacuation. You must evacuate now,” is a simple, highly effective way to get citizens to comply. In addition, since vulnerable populations or those with disabilities may need more time to prepare for evacuation than others, those messages may start with, “You are receiving this message because you identified as someone needing additional assistance for evacuation.”
The timing of these messages matters as well – vulnerable areas or populations may receive communications as early as 72 hours before the anticipated landfall of a hurricane, while others may receive 24-48 hours’ notice depending on their ability to evacuate. Critical considerations for evacuations are to be initiated during daytime hours and completed before nightfall. Evacuations during darkness can lead to significant challenges for the public.
An essential piece of effective messaging is establishing government or official entities as the primary source for all evacuation and preparedness information. For example, this can mean sending a disclaimer to all citizens of the only places to seek out correct information from these organizations (government social media handles, government websites, etc.). Fear and panic can create misinformation. So, in addition to proactively sending out needed information, officials must be prepared to be reactive to narratives of misinformation spreading through social media, online forums, and local groups such as homeowner associations. These sites must be monitored and rumors addressed ahead of detrimental impact. This occurred throughout COVID where government websites developed webpages that directly spoke against misinformation. Building trust and reducing fear and panic requires that people be consistently guided to a source where the most up-to-date information is readily available.
While a hurricane’s physical impact is unavoidable, government officials have every ability to communicate with their citizens to minimize loss of life and enhance public safety. Governments must prioritize community resilience and establish strategic communication plans consisting of multiple methods of communication, an acknowledgment of community members’ diverse needs, and actionable messages. These three tactics foster clear channels of communication and empower self-advocacy and action from citizens to ensure everyone is doing their part during every hurricane season.
Brian Toolan is the vice president of global public safety at Everbridge and works with government and private sector organizations to ensure safety and resilience in the face of emergencies and crises. With 25 years of public safety experience, Brian draws from his domain expertise and background in public safety, having previously served as vice president of life and safety at Intrado and an operation chief at the Connecticut Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security.