With its satellites, scanners and links to local officials, the federal government is often the best source for trusted information during a hurricane, tornado or other natural disaster.
Just having important information doesn’t mean much, though, if the public can’t find it or is too confused to do anything with the information once it does have it.
That’s a lesson officials learned during Hurricane Katrina when “separate websites were used to share information for evacuees, friends, and families and to publish lists of names” and “so many websites sprang up that it became difficult to find the specific website for the information, resources, or reconnection one needed,” according to a lessons learned report on social media and Hurricane Sandy published by the Homeland Security Department last week.
When Sandy pummeled the Northeast in October 2012, the Federal Emergency Management Agency did it’s best to ensure the government was speaking with a single online voice. That’s easier said than done, though, as the report shows.
The detailed description from the report of how FEMA, the General Services Administration and other agencies corralled Sandy information is below. Note that a single and authoritative source of government information is still a ways off but there’s now only one site, at USA.gov, that’s aggregating information from across government.
FEMA and Federal Sandy Website Standardization
On October 31, 2012, the web manager for FEMA issued guidance to all U.S. government agency websites (per Emergency Support Function 15 of the National Response Framework). In this guidance, FEMA requested four things:
Creation of a www.[agency].gov/sandy landing page on their respective site. On this page, agencies were requested to place information only FROM THEIR AGENCIES (to stay in their “lane” of communication) and to not cross-post information from other agencies. If one agency had information that would be appropriate to place on another agencies website, the agency Web managers were asked to coordinate directly. A request to create a URL for both English and Spanish content (if appropriate) was also made.
Once the www.[agency].gov/sandy landing page was created, the agencies were asked to notify the USA.gov web manager at the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) that the page was active and provide under which general “lane” of information the page fell:
- Health and Safety;
- How to Get Help;
- Find Friends and Family;
- Donate/Volunteer; and
- What the Government is Doing.
Once the USA.gov/sandy page was created, all agencies were then encouraged to cross-link from their agency homepage and their www.[agency].gov/sandy page back to the www.USA.gov/sandy page and/or embed the USA.gov Hurricane Sandy widget on their agency websites.
Once the www.[agency].gov/sandy pages were created, FEMA also requested that all agencies notify the FEMA web manager of the page status and also include whether or not the following information was included on the page:
- Situation reports;
- Blog posts;
- Press releases;
- Safety/recovery tips; and
- Other (details).
This information was then shared with FEMA’s Strategic Communications Division within the Office of External Affairs.
The goal of this effort was to drive visitors looking for Sandy information back to one authoritative source for information. FEMA, working with GSA, consolidated all U.S. government Web content related to Sandy onto www.USA.gov/sandy, with specific relief and recovery information being consolidated onto www.FEMA.gov/sandy. A widget was then created that directed the public to the five identified lanes of communication (identified above) on USA.gov.
From October 22 through December 31, 2012, the Hurricane Sandy page on USA.gov was viewed over 71,000 times, with the Hurricane Sandy widget being viewed over 2.8 million times. The Spanish version of the page was viewed over 3,600 times and the Spanish widget was viewed over 10,000 times.
FEMA’s Sandy Landing Page
On the www.FEMA.gov/sandy landing page, FEMA provided all of the specific relief, response and recovery information related to Sandy. Information for disaster survivors included how to get immediate help, how to locate a shelter, how to locate a FEMA Disaster Recovery Center, and access to the state-specific disaster declarations. This information was also ultimately provided in 18 languages aside from English. Links were provided to all applicable state and local websites, and information was provided for those who want to help (donations and volunteering).
As a direct response to lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina, the www.FEMA.gov/sandy page also contained two features that were part of a concerted effort to increase transparency around the U.S. government’s response to Sandy. The first was a timeline page, which provided a detailed chronology of the U.S. government’s response activities from October 22 through November 18, 2012. The second was a “Hurricane Sandy: By the Numbers” widget, which presented how many FEMA personnel were deployed in response to the disaster, how many assistance registrations had been received, how much had been approved in assistance dollars, and how many disaster recovery centers were open and their locations.
From October 22 through December 31, 2012, Hurricane Sandy pages on FEMA.gov were viewed over 740,000 times, with over 7 million visitors coming to the site as a whole.