April 2, 2012

Hurricane coming? Palm Beach County may be creating an app for that

If you're wondering when a storm might hit, or whether you should evacuate, that information might soon just be a phone app away.

Palm Beach County already has a web-based tool for reporting damage after the storm. Now it is testing that as a phone app, said county emergency manager Bill Johnson, who attended the National Hurricane Conference last week.

He said he hopes to include pre-storm information on phones, such as evacuations, perhaps as early as this hurricane season.

People in South Florida and nationwide have a phalanx of sources of information in an emergency.

And technology is helping emergency managers get the word out more effectively and at a lower cost.

But Florida has retirees who grew up not with iPhones but with the rotary-dial model. And at the other extreme are teens whose world is in iPhones and for whom a home computer already is a dinosaur.

That's the challenge, emergency managers said last week at a seminar at the hurricane conference.

For years, people have had access via computers and "smart phones" to the web pages of government and private weather outfits and federal, state and local agencies.

But those agencies have to feed that beast, early and often, with information that's both timely, comprehensive and accurate. Along with everything else they're trying to do.

In the Fort Myers area, Lee County spent $50,000 on an iPhone application that allows you to enter your address, or even let the phone find your location, and learn if you are in an evacuation zone, and if so, which one. And the nearest shelter.

If the county has pulled the trigger on an evacuation, you'll get an alert.
Lee emergency manager John Wilson said the "app" cost about $50,000.

"But if you don't get fancy," Wilson told the session, "it could cost you between $10,000 and $15,000. You can probably get a local sponsor."

iPhone applications such as those in Lee County are "the next logical step after Facebook and Twitter,' said Wayne Salladé, Wilson's counterpart in Charlotte County.

But Salladé warned, southwest Florida turns over half its population every eight years.

That's a dynamic shared at different levels by all of Florida, including Palm Beach County, where the overall population grew 16.7 percent just between 2000 and 2010.

"That means there's a constant process of education of the public" about what to do when a storm threatens, Salladé said.

"And," he said, it's "a reluctant public," comprised of transplants, many from regions that don't experience hurricanes.

Salladé has a bigger problem. His county, of which 94 percent lives in storm surge areas, also has America's highest median age, around 58. So he went back to the future.

With a grant of just $37,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Salladé bought thousands of pieces of vinyl coated with the same reflective material used on stop signs.

He got them in red, orange, yellow, and green.

He then rounded up volunteers and has installed some 9,000 of these on the posts of stop signs throughout his county. The color instantly tells people their evacuation zone. No computer required.

Salladé said even deputies directing evacuations often had to call dispatchers to see if a person they were persuading to leave was in fact in an evacuation zone. Now, he said, they just have to look at the stop sign.

By Eliot Kleinberg Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

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