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Planning for Alternative Methods of Public Communication

Communications During Disater

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Amateur radio station: closeup of an a radio transceiver

When planning for disaster, jurisdictions often overlook how they will communicate with citizens and stakeholders in the disaster area when traditional forms of communication are unavailable. Initial communications after a disaster are critical for the health and safety of residents; it’s important to have multiple plans in place for communicating in all scenarios.

The City of Central, La., which has contracted with IBTS to provide municipal services, knows this perhaps better than any locality. After historic flooding swallowed the city in August 2016, local leaders had one working cell phone and one laptop with no server access. The City became isolated, and communication both with community members and external stakeholders was extremely limited and even cutoff for a short period.

“The most important thing is for communities to understand communications with the community and what that really means without infrastructure,” says IBTS Branch Manager Steve Traina. “We’re not communicating with cell phones and email. . . we’re communicating old style.”

During the Central flooding, IBTS’s office was flooded and their equipment and computers – which had not been unplugged or put on high level – were damaged beyond repair. The IBTS team began operating out of a makeshift office in Central’s City Hall, with one working cell phone and one computer without server access.

“If we had only done simple things like kept our computers off the ground we would’ve been so much better off,” says IBTS Planning/GIS Technician Kathi Cowen. “When it comes to equipment, protecting it so you have it to use in the disaster response is what’s important – not the cost to replace a computer, router or phone.”

Local media and social media – Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – can be one of the most effective ways to reach the community, but when cable, cell towers and landlines are knocked out, localities must have multiple plans in place for sending important messages to the community – where and when to meet, how to communicate their needs, road conditions and other essential messages.

Hand holding walkie talkie

Central was able to push important messages to the community through their Facebook page, such as shelter locations, curfews, road closures and requests for supplies and volunteers. Yet they lost the ability to communicate through Facebook from 3:30 p.m. on the second day of flooding until 8 a.m. the next morning – leaving the community wondering where to go and what to do next.

Localities must be prepared to do whatever it takes to reach the public, even if it means deploying staff to go door-to-door. By the second day of rain in Central, for example, emergency responders had to travel by boat to reach residents in need. Yet with no cell service or internet access, they had no way to locate residents stranded in their homes. Police resorted to traveling the streets by boat with a bull horn, trying to reach elderly, residents with a disability and other residents trapped in their homes.

“If you are on some major body of water, try to get more warnings to citizens to save their things and still get out,” recommends City of Central Councilman Jason Ellis.

As it becomes safe to do so, jurisdictions should set up community centers where residents can go to receive information vocally, hold town hall meetings as soon as it is safe to do so, post flyers or even drive – or boat – from house-to-house, if need be. During a disaster, public information officers and local leaders can reach out to leaders of local groups like neighborhood and homeowner associations to get the word out to residents in their networks.

Jurisdictions should also consider investing in a reverse 9-1-1 emergency communications system to send mass text or voice messages to residents. Yet this is a first line of defense – in many disaster situations residents and city officials do not have access to cell phones. Likewise, local Ham enthusiasts can serve as volunteer Ham operators during a disaster when communication with internal and external stakeholders without internet or cell service is required.

“Have redundant systems,” says City of Councilman Shane Evans. “Two is one and one is none.”

IBTS Program Manager Steve Traina discusses the importance of understanding and using alternative methods of communication in a disaster.

Historic Flooding in Central, Louisiana

In August 2016, over seven trillion gallons of rain fell in a 48-hour period in the city of Central, Louisiana, swallowing the city – and most of southern Louisiana – in more than four feet of water, and in some places up to six feet. The City of Central, which is located at the confluence of the Amite and Comite rivers, was still recovering from flash flooding that had occurred earlier in the year when the August flooding occurred.

More than 5,000 homes in the city sustained “substantial damage,” meaning that the damage was estimated to cost 50 percent or more of the structure’s value to repair. In total, 25,000 of the 27,000 residents of Central were impacted by the flood. While homeowners took a big hit from the storm, fewer than 50 businesses in Central were damaged.

“If this happens again, we’ll have to rethink everything,” says Kathi Cowen, IBTS/Central’s Floodplain Manager and GIS Specialist. “We hope we won’t see something of this scale again in our lifetimes.”

At the time of the flood, 75 percent of Central was in the 100-year flood zone, where there is a 1 percent chance of flooding each year and residents are required to carry private flood insurance. Yet 90 percent of the houses and businesses in the city sustained flood damage as a result of the August 2016 flooding, extrapolating the costs of damage due to the nearly 2,000 homes that did not have and were not required to have flood insurance.

The flood was the fourth most costly and the largest since Hurricane Sandy. In total, the flood damaged 55,000 southern Louisiana homes, and had initial damage costs estimated at $8.7 billion.

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