It’s hurricane season, and in the golden age of technology you know what that means: There’s an app for that.
From the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to former National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield, a good number of expert forecasters, along with a few amateurs, have latched onto technology to help guide people through the perils of a hurricane. When the season opens June 1, there will be no shortage of apps for radar tracking, tweets signaling the approach of severe weather and web sites with amped-up interactive features.
It certainly never hurts to be able to turn your phone into a strobe light. Thank you, Red Cross.
“We’re putting the information literally in people’s hands and in their pockets and making it easily sharable,” said Ines Hernandez-Siqueira, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross, which responds to about 70,000 disasters every year. “It’s a natural extension of the Red Cross.”
In addition to location-specific radar and crucial, real-time information about shelters indicating where they are and when they open, the Red Cross app provides step-by-step instructions for what to do leading up to the storm. When the storm hits, another tool lets you alert your social media contacts, from Twitter to Facebook, in a single urgent message. For weather geeks, the app includes a 150-year history of hurricanes in the United States.
Two years ago, when Hurricane Sandy grew into a Frankenstorm that pounded the northeast with the second most destructive hurricane in U.S. history, the app was downloaded 400,000 times, Hernandez-Siqueira said.
“Everybody and their grandmother’s got an app,” said Mayfield, who worked with the digital team at WPLG, where he is now a hurricane specialist, to develop his app. “The idea was to keep it simple. There’s so much information out there.”
Indeed. As the accessibility of smart phones has increased in the last year and a half, apps have surged, said Marcos Sanchez, vice president of global communications for App Annie, an analytics and marketing firm that tracks about four million apps.
With smart phone use “almost to the point of saturation,” weather technology was a natural application, Sanchez said. Many phones already have some weather element built into their software, but there is plenty of room for tailored apps that target users, he said. Take Zyrtec. The allergy medicine manufactured by Johnson & Johnson created an app that tracks the pollen index. It recently ranked among the top 20 free weather apps App Annie tracks, Sanchez said.
“It’s super useful, and that’s the trick with these weather apps. The best ones are the ones that are most useful,” he said.
Evelyn Stahl, a retired teacher and school librarian, keeps WeatherBug and NOAA bookmarked on her computer. But when she’s out and about, she relies on the Weather Channel and Radar Now apps.
“I use them all the time. I’m not compulsive about it, but if it’s cold in the morning, I want to know, hey, is it going to warm up? What should I wear?” she said.
Each day during hurricane season, Stahl, 69, opens up the National Hurricane Center on her home computer. For quick updates by phone, she finds the Weather Channel is “the easiest. It has the forecast. It’s visual, and you can see where the rain is.”
Simplicity seems to be the key with popular weather apps, Sanchez said. Another factor is utility. A boater might download a tidal app as a storm approaches, while a television reporter might consider a wind meter.
The Red Cross is rolling out a Spanish-language version of its app in mid-June. Other apps, including the Weather Channel and WeatherBug, are already offered in Spanish as well as other languages.
The age of the user could determine which app they use, Sanchez said.
“Kids who grew up and never knew a time when there wasn’t a cell phone are going to be more open to multi-tasking and complicated apps that can do quite a few different things,” he said. “The older generation, they want the one thing and they want it to do it well.”
As of May 20, App Annie ranked the Weather Channel as the No. 1 free app. Dark Sky — Weather Radar, Hyperlocal Forecasts and Storm Alerts was the most downloaded paid app, for $3.99. While radar dominated the 500 other apps ranked, some more interesting contenders made it to the top of the field. There’s Barometer, a 99-cent app that lets you check the atmospheric pressure at your location; Weather Puppy, a free app that lets you tailor your forecast with, you guessed it, images of puppies; Lightning Cast, an app that for $3.99 alerts you to lightning strikes within a radius you set at three locations; and Effing Weather, a free app that provides weather forecasts with effing funny phrases.
Islara Souto downloaded the Max Tracker and then shared it with her husband because she liked the simple radar. But she uses Weather Bug on her computer because it lets her track by ZIP code.
“That predictor capacity is very useful,” said Souto, a regional director for the American Heart Association.
Miami-Dade County’s Emergency Management web site and its Twitter account also provide a source of immediate information, said Director Curtis Sommerhoff. Once a storm is forecast for the area, he said, the Emergency Operations Center takes over the county’s home portal, updating information as varied as gas station openings to school closings. The county uses its 311 phone line to try to keep up with information from residents and has included a “snap shot” program they hope residents will use after the storm to let county officials know the condition of their homes.
This year the county also added a storm surge simulator, designed by Florida International University, that incorporates new county flood maps created last year.
With so much information available, Sommerhoff said, managing the flow and accuracy during a crisis can prove tricky.
“We’re learning — especially with social media during the Boston bombings, where the city of Boston was pushing out tweets every 20 minutes,” he said. “We’re trying to give the experts the leeway to do things and make sure the information is readily available.”
The Miami Herald is retooling its hurricane guide with a searchable database that will also be formatted for mobile devices. The guide will be available in June, with additional information being added over time.
For apps, success tends to directly relate to ease of use, Sanchez said.
“Easy access to data when you don’t know how long your battery is going to last is super important,” he said. “Or even specific utilities. So yeah, a strobe light or even a flashlight is fabulous. You might not have cell service, but your app is still going to work.”
Mayfield, who was director of the hurricane center from 2000 to 2007, said he first argued for more bells and whistles on his app, given his experience juggling data from a variety of sources. But designers persuaded him to keep it simple with basic satellite imagery and a forecast track depicting the cone of uncertainty.
“It’s one of the best radars for the best price. It’s free,” he joked.
Mayfield also relies on an app from the Federal Alliance For Safe Homes. The app lets users search for information by selecting either a type of “peril” or selecting a state, which then lists the perils that can possibly occur. Florida qualifies for six out of 10 perils: extreme heat, floods, hurricanes, thunderstorms, tornadoes and wildfires. We’re off the hook for tsunamis, earthquakes, severe winter weather and hail, although hail has certainly come knocking in South Florida.
“You can select which watches and warnings you want,” he said, explaining that he chose only tornadoes. The app then lets you enter five different addresses to signal alerts. “So I’ve got my three kids and my mother-in-law.”
Any time weather threatens them, Mayfield knows.
“My first stop is still the National Hurricane Center and the NHC web site,” he said. “But when I’m on the road, apps are great.”
This article includes comments from the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their insights with the Miami Herald and WLRN. Become a source at MiamiHerald.com/insight.