A short time after Hurricane Isaac began dumping more than a foot of rain in the southern states, CNN published a list of recommendations for preparing for hurricanes. The first item on this list:
"Download an application to your smartphone that can notify people where you are, and if you need help or are safe."
Downloading an app sounds like a reasonable step for smartphone owners. As recently as 2007 this item wouldn't have been part of an emergency preparations list, but by now it’s not really much of a story that one of the best ways to keep informed and connected during a crisis is to have a well-equipped smart phone. The CNN recommended smartphone app is Hurricane from the American Red Cross (available for iOS and Android) which includes - among many useful things – the ability to review hurricane information of the last 161 years.
A map of all the hurricanes since 1851 created by John Nelson using publicly available NOAA data. To orient yourself -that is Antarctica at the center.
Further down CNN’s list we find this item:
“Continue listening to a NOAA Weather Radio (NWR) or the local news for the latest updates.”
To listen to these recurring broadcasts requires a special, weather radio (a battery or self powered model is highly recommended). NWR broadcasts cover approximately 95% of the US population however by the NOAA’s own estimation only 5 -10% of people own a weather radio. By comparison a Pew Research Center study from earlier this year reports that 46% of American adults own smartphones and it is widely acknowledged that cell phone ownership around the world is the growing norm.
The National Weather Service is well aware of the reach of cell phone networks of course. This past Monday morning around four o’clock I woke up to an unexpected, unset alarm. I found that my phone was showing a red "warning" triangle and a message from “NWS” about a flash flood watch in my area. This wasn’t the first time I'd received a message like this. The message from the National Weather Service was delivered using the infrastructure of commercial mobile carriers according to the requirements of the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS). The messages operate slightly differently than standard text messages (SMS or MMS) so you can't respond to them with a gracious “thx!!! ;)”. Most phones purchased after 2010 have the ability to receive these messages regardless of their operating system. Consumers are able opt out of these alerts (EXCEPT for Presidential messages), but opting out is not recommended since these messages are known to save lives.