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How Tech and Data Boosted Florida’s Response to Irma

Evacuees leave the Germain Arena in Estero, Fla., which was used as an evacuation shelter for Hurricane Irma,

Evacuees leave the Germain Arena in Estero, Fla., which was used as an evacuation shelter for Hurricane Irma, Gerald Herbert / AP File Photo

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Some of the tools and strategies the Sunshine State used to prepare for and recover from a big hurricane.

As Hurricane Opal ambled its way up the Gulf of Mexico during the first week of October 1995, the National Hurricane Center predicted the Category 1 storm would make landfall somewhere between Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach in the Florida Panhandle as a Category 2 hurricane.

That was around 10 a.m. on Tuesday, Oct 3. But by that afternoon, the storm was gaining strength and momentum and by 10 p.m. Tuesday night, Hurricane Opal had intensified into a dangerous Category 3 storm. County emergency management officials and local governments in northwest Florida scrambled to order evacuations around 11 p.m.—but many residents didn’t find out until they awoke the following morning when tropical storm force winds were already bearing down on the state.

As panicked Floridians attempted to flee the now Category 4 storm, evacuation routes throughout northwest Florida and southern Alabama became jammed. By mid-morning on Oct. 4, some counties canceled evacuation orders and urged people to stay put or “seek refuge” from the monster storm that ended up destroying 300 homes, killing nine people and causing about $2.5 billion in property damage.

Twenty-two years later, hurricanes are proving just as unpredictable, but thanks to technology, state and local government officials today have better tools at their disposal to try and avoid the sort of chaos that occurred with Opal.

Last year, for instance, the Florida Department of Emergency Management rolled out its AlertFlorida emergency notification system, a statewide mass notification service that can directly alert residents about everything from evacuation orders to shelter-in-place warnings to the availability of sandbags and curfews.

Rather than relying on TV or radio, residents can sign up to get immediate notifications by their preferred method of communication—be it by smartphone, text message, email or social media. During Hurricane Irma—a massive hurricane that made landfall twice in Florida on Sept. 10 and enveloped virtually the whole state—AlertFlorida delivered more than 20 million messages to citizens.

One ongoing challenge with the emergency notification system is ensuring resident participation. Only those whose numbers are listed in the white pages or yellow pages are automatically subscribed to receive phone alerts. Individuals with unlisted numbers must proactively opt in if they wish to receive messages.   

While residents can register for the potentially life-saving service online at any time, the state offered citizens an easier way to opt-in as Hurricane Irma approached the state by simply texting the keyword “FLPREPARES to the number 888777. The marketing appears to have paid off. Over the course of the storm, more than 600,000 Floridians signed up, bringing the services total number of “opt-ins” to nearly 1 million, according to service provider Everbridge.

AlertFlorida is just one of many tech-based tools the Sunshine State has adopted to grapple with hurricane preparedness and response.

Other key innovations include the Transportation Interface for Modeling Evacuations, or TIME, which predicts how people will behave when evacuating from a hurricane. Built following Florida’s busy 2004-05 hurricane season with Citilab’s Cube behavioral traffic modeling software, the system combines storm surge data from the National Hurricane Center with other variables to help counties decide how and when to order evacuations.

The state has also developed an array of GIS-enabled systems to track everything from road closures to power outages to shelter openings and has implemented geospatial tools to support reporting and tracking debris cleanup. There’s even an organized effort to deal with ”social media monitoring” and  “rumor control.” The Virtual Operations Support Team, or VOST, is comprised of a team of students from Florida State University’s Emergency Management and Homeland Security program who monitor social media and relay “life-safety concerns” they spot to the Florida Department of Emergency Management.

Heather Fagan, deputy chief of staff to Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, said interactive mapping was what seemed to make the most difference in how her city responded to Irma, versus previous hurricanes.

Like much of Florida, Orlando was plagued by widespread power outages when Irma hit and in the days following the storm. But by layering data from the Orlando Utilities Commission on power outages and expected restoration times on top of existing maps—including maps that showed where the city’s special needs residents were located—the city was able to “respond strategically” and determine “how, when and where to do life safety checks” and set up ice distribution points and mobile feeding units, explains Fagan.

Thanks to one quick-thinking U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee, first responders in Florida and Texas have some better tools at their disposal for conducting search and rescue operations.  

Josh O’Connor, a fire specialist with the FWS, says his agency and other federal entities were working on getting some of their responders into east Texas after Hurricane Harvey hit in late August, when they received word that the emergency operations command center in one county had been completely wiped out.

“No computer access. None of their maps were left. They didn’t have any data,” recalls O’Connor. “Their first request was for us to get a bunch of maps and get them FedExed to them, or close to them, so they could go pick them up.”

Knowing that it would take at least 36 hours to get printed maps to the Lone Star State, O’Connor suggested they instead use a technology designed for fighting wildfires: a geo-referenced PDF map that could be made available on a phone, tablet or computer that has a GPS connection and lets them know where they were on a flooded street or submerged parking lot that they might not be able to see. O’Connor also integrated information on low-lying areas, where the flooding might be deeper, and added data on the locations of power lines and oil infrastructure—anything that might constitute a hazard to first responders.

The maps were such a big hit that more requests from other counties began spilling in and FWS opted to make a set for every county in Florida in advance of Hurricane Irma.

In the aftermath of Harvey and Irma, drone technology also proved to be an extraordinarily useful tool, both in rescue operations and in assessing damage. Telecom providers, for instance, used unmanned aircraft to look for downed cell towers and insurers are increasingly adopting the technology to help them in the claims process.

Louis Ziskin, CEO and founder of DropIn Inc., a Los Angeles-based company that provides on-demand streaming video services to help insurance adjusters remotely process claims, said in an interview that the typical insurance adjuster might be able to process three to four homeowners’ claims per day following a disaster like  a hurricane. With drones, they can easily process 30 to 40. “Any time you have to send somebody up on a ladder, they’d rather send a drone,” he told Route Fifty.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, the City of Miami recognized a unique opportunity to gather more up-to-date flood information about the city. Michael Sarasti, Miami’s chief innovation officer, said the idea came about in the midst of the storm when local officials were hunkered down in the Emergency Operations Center.

“We saw the storm surge. Our planning and zoning team went in there and said, we need to capture this data fast, before we lose the ability to do that,” Sarasti explained in an interview. “Because a lot of predictions before are based on older FEMA maps or projected storm surge based on altitude and geography. Here was an opportunity to track what actually happened.”

Working with the GIS teams within the city’s Department of Information Technology, the city armed staffers from the planning and zoning department and other volunteers with Esri’s Survey123 app for mobile data collection, and once it was safe to do so sent them into the field where they snapped photos of the remnants of the storm surge. The images of debris and sand deposits, which the city has made publicly available online, have provided a good idea of where the storm surge came up to, says Sarasti and will help with future planning.  

Another notable development in this year’s busy storm season, Sarasti noted, was the of advent of crowd-sourced hurricane information and assistance from a civic tech brigade. Organizing over a Slack channel, which operates in the cloud much like a chat room, this army of volunteers set up to help individuals find open shelters and shelters to request needed supplies.

The project mirrored efforts in Texas with Hurricane Harvey that were credited with creating online crowdsourced maps that helped rescue a number of flood victims—though Sarasti noted occasional tension that developed when the information being put out on contradicted official information being issued by Florida counties.

Looking to the future, he is eager to have a conversation on “how can marry these things in future storms” and says he expects it will be a hot topic at the upcoming Miami Day of Civic Hacking event on Oct. 21. “It was cool that these things were happening in parallel. The next stage we’re talking about is how we can really bring these things closer together.”