The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is no stranger to media attention, according to OhMyGov Analytics, references to the agency surged on Twitter last week, amid preparations by FEMA and Vermont officials to train first responders and emergency management officials just in case the next Irene hits the Green Mountain State this year.
Nearly 1,195 tweets mentioning FEMA were recorded last Friday--out of 6,690 for the week. Press reports drove much of the chatter, with a few references to Katrina and FEMA conspiracy theories scattered among the crowd.
"FEMA, Vermont, And Local Officials Plan for the Next Disaster" @PressOfficeEU tweeted.
According to 7NewsInteractive--the source of the FEMA press release--community leaders from key cities such as Richmond and Huntington in Chittenden County--which was severely affected by Irene as roads were submerged and highway workers were left stranded following the September hurricane--participated in the My 23-24 Community Mass Care and Emergency Assistance course, making Vermont the only other state to participate in it.
The move came ahead of the official start of hurricane season June 1. But some on Twitter saw a malevolent hand in the preparations.
"Find the FEMA Camp near you. US AFB's are Patterned for Global Slaughter" @Harriet_516 wrote, referencing a conspiracy website that implied that the federal government was in the process of establishing concentration camps on key Air Force bases in New York, Delaware, North Carolina, and other states in furtherance of what conspiracy theorists call the "New World Order".
Conspiracy theories aside, emergency management officials made real news this month, when it was announced that forecasters were using social media sites like Twitter and Facebook to help emergency management officials tweak their responses to storms. According to the Lowell Sun of Lowell, Massachusetts, researchers are using the social media networks to track the development of hurricanes like Irene, which was predicted by the National Hurricane Center.
"The National Hurricane Center was incredibly accurate in predicting Irene's path," Bill Read, a former director of the center in Miami, told a conference of emergency management officials in Massachusetts May 10. "but the timing was off."
According to Read, comments on Twitter and Facebook immediately before the storm were dismissive of Irene, helped in no small part by the fact that the last major hurricane to strike the region occurred in 1938, resulting in the deaths of 800 people and millions of dollars in damage.
"People had no idea this was going to happen" Read said.
The new research hopes to create what Read calls a 'proactive instead of a reactive' response among the public when it comes to hurricanes. But push for more awareness of hurricanes faces a generational hurdle--according to the Sun, less than a third of emergency management officials are active on social media, even though FEMA, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, and other organizations have a big footprint on Twitter.
But perhaps the most sobering analysis comes from Read himself.
"Most people don't know who their local emergency manager is," Read said. "most don't know they exist."