As buckles, city government pivots to the Internet to share Hurricane #Irene resources

Tens of millions of citizens in the United States are watching as Hurricane Irene churns up the East Coast. If you’re in the path of the immense storm, today is a critical day to prepare. Visit for relevant resources. Unfortunately for citizens in my home state, New York City is right in the path of Hurricane Irene. As many New Yorkers look for information online, however, we’re watching is buckling under demand. For part of Friday morning, would not resolve. The outage is providing a real-time experiment in how a megalopolis with millions of citizens provides information during a natural disaster.

As the Village Voice reported, NYC is evacuating the most vulnerable and putting out advisories but city websites are down. As a result, we’re watching how city government is forced to pivot to the Internet and commercial websites, including social media, to get information out.

Dropbox is hosting a Hurricane #Irene Evacuation PDF (It’s not completely clear if city government uploaded the PDF or not, when this post was published). NYC chief digital officer Rachel Sterne and the official Twitter account have acknowledged and apologized for the outage and pointed citizens to for the official evacuation map:

NYC Hurricane Evacuation Map

Notably, Mayor Bloomberg’s staff has uploaded the New York City Hurricane Evacuation Zones PDF to his personal website,, and tweeted it out. We’re in unexplored territory here, in terms of a mayor sharing information this way, but in the context of incoming weather, it’s hard to fault the move, though it’s likely inevitable.. [Ed: As Nick Clark Judd pointed out in his excellent post on how governments are scrambling to deliver information to citizens looking for hurricane information online, Mayor Bloomberg has posted press releases and other information to his website several times before.]

What is clear, amidst growing concerns of a multi-billion dollar disaster, is that the New York City government’s website hosting strategy needs to be revisited. According to Provide Security, NYC servers are hosted in a data center in Brooklyn. Spikes in demand are precisely what cloud computing offers to the private sector and, increasingly, to federal government. As hurricane clouds gather, it’s probably past time for New York government to get familiar into cloudbursting or move quickly implementing internal architectures that include a private cloud, through Nebula or something similar, to handle the load. In the context of disasters, surge capacity for government websites is no longer a “nice-to-have” — it’s a must-have.

UPDATE: Civic technologist Philip Ashlock is mirroring NYC Irene data & links on Amazon Web Services (AWS). Even though NYC didn’t move critical resources to the cloud itself, a member of New York City’s technology community stepped up to help the city and citizens in a crisis. That’s Gov 2.0 in action:

Maps Hurricane Evacuation Zone Finder
OASIS Map (more info)
ArcGIS Map

Raw Data


Hurricane resources from the Feds

The federal government is providing information on Hurricane Irene at and sharing news and advisories in real-time on the radio, television, mobile devices and online using social media channels. A curated list from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (@FEMA) is embedded below:

If you use Twitter, a key follow this weekend is FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, who tweets at @CraigAtFEMA. This morning, Fugate tweeted out a link to new digital tools, including a FEMA Android app and text shortcodes. If you’re at risk, this information is for you. Shayne Adamski, senior manager for digital engagement, blogged the details:

In the new FEMA App, you’ll be able to:

  • Check off the items you have in your family’s emergency kit,
  • Enter your family emergency meeting locations,
  • Review safety tips on what to do before, during and after a disaster,
  • View a map of shelters and disaster recovery centers across the U.S., and
  • Read our latest blog posts.

When we built the app, we kept the disaster survivor in mind, making sure much of the information would be available even if cell phone service isn’t, so you’ll be able to access the important information on how to safe after a disaster, as well as your family emergency meeting locations.

So as Administrator Fugate said, you can download our app today in the Android market, and look for FEMA App for Blackberry version 6 devices and iPhones in the coming weeks.

FEMA Text Messages 

A new and separate service from the new app, our text message updates will allow cell phone users to receive text message updates from FEMA.

  • Text PREPARE to 43362 (4FEMA) to sign up to receive monthly disaster safety tips
  • Text SHELTER + your ZIP code to 43362 (4FEMA) to find the nearest shelter in your area (example: shelter 12345)
    (For availability of shelters and services, contact your local emergency management agency.)
  • Text DRC + your ZIP code to 44362 (4FEMA) to find the nearest disaster recovery center in your area (for example, if you lived in Annandale, Virginia with a Zip Code of 22003, you’d text DRC 22003).

We’re excited to provide these two new ways you can access information on your mobile device, in addition to our already existing mobile site – Stay tuned to our blog, Facebook and Twitter channels as we roll out our app to the remaining smartphone operating systems and make enhancements to our text messages program.

So download the app or text PREPARE to 44362, and then leave us a comment and let us know what you think. We encourage you to tell a family member, friend, or neighbor as well, so they can have disaster safety information always at their fingertips.

[Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory]

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.


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