Thursday, October 15, 2015

[SMEM] Hurricane Joaquin / South Carolina Flood Recovery - Part 1

This diary serves as a day-by-day guide of the establishment of's Social Media Emergency Management (SMEM) response to the disaster caused by Hurricane Joaquin (#HurricaneJoaquin) as well as the related "1,000-Year" storm system it fed into which produced the disastrous and deadly flooding in South Carolina (#SCFlood). Though the storm only lasted from the end of September to early October 2015, its impacts affected lives of millions, plus devastated infrastructure and altered the very landscape of the affected communities. The impacts to individuals, businesses and whole communities will take weeks, months and years to repair and rebuild.

This first part discusses the surveillance of a major tropical cyclone that formed off the U.S. east coast, until the point that an SMEM social media community, based on Facebook groups, was created to respond. Major natural phenomena require active monitoring and surveillance long before activation of your SMEM team. Proactive communications with existing communities-of-interest can help seed awareness to make activation rapid and widespread.
27 September 2015, Sunday

In late September 2015 a gathering storm dubbed blandly as "Tropical Depression ELEVEN" was first noted in an initial advisory by the US NOAA National Hurricane Center. Far out at sea, smack dab in the midst of the wide swath of ocean more superstitious folks call the Bermuda Triangle, it was innocuous enough, and was expected to drift to the northwest with moderate wind speeds. Had it developed the way that the computer models predicted, it would have likely been a minor tropical depression that brought some significant rain and moderate flooding to the Mid-Atlantic States. Yet otherwise none of us would be talking about it any more or less than any other system of thundershowers and tropical depressions that move over the Eastern U.S. every year. However, this was going to become a storm to remember. Not only for itself, but for its very telling side effects.

28 Sep 2015, Monday

By the next morning, Tropical Depression Eleven was well on its way to become promoted to a Tropical Storm. This was regardless of a significant north/northwesterly wind shear of 20 knots (23 mph). In other words, even though this storm was heading directly into a headwind it was continuing to pick up steam and maintain a velocity of 5 mph. The NOAA admitted there were factors conducive to the storm picking up energy, but "shear of this magnitude suggests that only slow intensification is possible," and "little further strengthening is indicated." There was a caveated possibility of the cyclone "merging with a frontal zone offshore" within 96 hours, but by that time it should turn post-tropical. The track of the storm had shifted a bit, now pointing the storm more directly towards the Outer Banks of North Carolina. In the 11 pm discussion Number 5, it was promoted to Tropical Storm Joaquin.

29 Sep 2015, Tuesday

Nature has a proclivity for perversity. It exhibits an uncanny knack for screwing with even the most brilliant of scientific human minds and regardless of all the sophisticated hardware we can throw at problems. NOAA stated in Discussion Number 7 that it was attempting to "reconcile large model spread." Translation: all the various supercomputer models were predicting a wide range of divergent possible outcomes, and what the storm would do next was nearly anyone's guess. The original forecasts were now moot, because the storm had unleashed its first major surprise on the meteorological community. Rather than head northwards, NOAA declared Joaquin "is currently in a relatively weak steering pattern." It was behaving more chaotic than predicted, making a large, lazy turn like someone spun around in a planetary-scale game of "pin the tail on the donkey." Joaquin first began drifting westwards, and then eventually settled on a path towards the west-southwest. Now it was pointed at the Bahamas.

This shift in direction had additional profound effects. First, Joaquin was experiencing less of the type of shear that would decrease its power. Second, it would now be moving over warmer stretches of ocean. Higher Sea Surface Temperatures (SST) meant there was more energy to hoover up into the tropical cyclone. More moisture. More energy. It all added up to a bigger storm with increased wind speed. It was heading towards hurricane status.

Moreoever, Joaquin was still wandering like a dizzy party-goer. By Advisory 9 that evening, the lurch of the storm was predicted to take a sudden northward turn sometimes after Thursday evening.

30 Sep 2015, Wednesday

By 8 am on 30 September, NOAA had indeed upgraded the system, now declaring it Hurricane Joaquin. Initial indications of an eye trying to form could be seen by satellite imagery.

Though it was currently moving towards the Bahamas, NOAA noted a deep-layer trough would pull it northwards once again within four days. What it would do thereafter was all up for considerable debate. Would it make landfall in the eastern United States? Would it be pulled away towards Bermuda and out-to-sea? The storm was lurching, and it was still uncertain which way it would drunkenly stumble. If direction was indeterminate, the one thing NOAA was willing to bet on by Discussion 11 was the power of the storm: "the intensity forecast calls for Joaquin to peak as a major hurricane in about 72 hours, and it is possible it could be stronger than currently forecast."

It was only after Advisory 11A, when I saw the five-day track was predicted to make landfall somewhere along the U.S. east coast with hurricane force that I began to mobilize the community. The first notices I posted were in the Rockaways - Hurricane Sandy News community on Facebook. This group of over 4,000 people was created the morning after landfall of Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Its purpose was to help communicate vital updates, news, relief and recovery information, uniting residents of the neighborhoods of the Rockaways in New York City with a social community comprised of aid volunteers, non-profit staff, government officials, friends, and relatives.  It is still active for long-term recovery needs, serving as a common ground for discussion of the storm and its aftermath, coastal resiliency needs (groins, sand replenishment), concerns of global warming and sea rise, personal and business recovery, and so on.

How you communicate such news to a community is crucial. I wanted to give them an honest head's up and fair assessment. Yet when news of a storm breaks, there is often an inducement of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for some disaster victims. Old wounds feel fresh. Bitter disappointments taste fresh once more. Rumors can fly. I did not wish to set off undue alarm or anxiety.

Throughout the afternoon, buzz began to build on Joaquin. It wasn't just for weather wonks any more. Major media outlets began to report on the storm. The winds could be as high as ~85 mph off-shore of the NY/NJ area by Monday 8 am. Yet there were still a myriad of tracks the storm could follow. By that evening, the consensus track had already shifted and moved towards the Chesapeake Bay region. I issued a follow-up commentary based on NOAA NHC Advisory 12.

However, what was obvious was that one location that was being directly impacted was the Bahamas. It was time to worry less about where the storm might end up, and open up a disaster recovery group that was focused upon where it was certain to be impacting. Thus, I launched the Hurricane Joaquin Facebook group, and began to invite some of the key folks from Rockaways - Hurricane Sandy News into it to "seed" it with seasoned disaster response and recovery veterans, such as other SMEM experts from Disaster Info Team and boots-on-the-ground organizations like Team Rubicon. I wrote up an initial mission statement:

Hurricane Joaquin group is for Social Media Emergency Management (SMEM), monitoring, reporting, and responding to the immediate and ongoing needs of communities impacted by Hurricane Joaquin. Created and moderated by staff of as well as other concerned global citizens.

Then I began curating articles from reputable meteorological sources, such as NOAA, plus and Headlines like "#HurricaneJoaquin is going to be wet." "How will Joaquin compare to Superstorm Sandy?" set expectations based on the best data we had at the time. I also began to add sources that would be of definite utility if it ever made U.S. landfall: FEMA flood maps, disaster and distress helplines such as SAMHSA, etc.

Plus, I took the time to customize the GlobalCommit Group Ground Rules for what would be acceptable in terms of courtesy and tone of discussion. People who are undergoing the anxiety of disaster recovery can range from all ends of calmness to rage to depression. But if we are going to build a group of hundreds, if not thousands, of people intercommunicating, a basis for group discussion is vital.

Next, I took to write an open letter to the Rockaways - Hurricane Sandy News community as a call-to-action. A request to "Pay-it-Forward" for all the assistance they had received in the aftermath of Sandy.

With the group established, it was time to call it a night. Or morning. Because I had worked nearly until dawn on 1 October preparing for Joaquin's next set of tricks.

Expect your first hours of activation to be intense. A lot of information needs to be marshaled. A lot of community "meta-discussions" can be had, like touching base with peers, doing a "gut-check" and building consensus before you decide to spring into action. Yet during such real-time emerging situations, sometimes you don't need to get caught up in committees-from-hell or analysis-paralysis. In this case, I made a personal executive decision. Everyone, once aware of it, was on-board. We all knew, no matter what happened, this was going to be big.


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