Tweeting tornado warnings a good idea despite limitations, bloggers say

Using Twitter to spread a disaster warning message has advantages and disadvantages, bloggers write.

During the recent tornado outbreaks in Minnesota, Illinois and Massachusetts, Twitter became notable as a tool for spreading government agency and news media warnings of impending storms and twisters. But Twitter’s limitations as a warning system for tornadoes also are being examined.

Andrew Freedman, writer for the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang blog, wrote in a blog entry June 6 that he was glued to his Twitter feed watching severe thunderstorms developing from Massachusetts to northern Maine the week before.

“It was through Twitter that I found out every tornado warning from almost the moment it was issued, not [from] a television station, radio network, [The National Oceanic and Atmospheric  Administration's] Weather Radio, or any other news source,” Freedman wrote.

In many cases, Twitter messages beat the TV anchors and weather forecasters by several minutes, “which can mean the difference between life and death when a tornado is involved,” he added.

Freedman is a self-described “weather geek” who was adept in finding up-to-the-minute amateur Twitpics and location information about the tornadoes. But not everyone is so devoted and skilled.

For many people, Twitter updates about tornadoes can present confusion as well as life-or-death information, Chad Catacchio, blogger for Crisis Commons, wrote in a blog entry June 3. Crisis Commons is an organization that brings together emergency managers and technology volunteers. Social media can be helpful because they can be accessed on mobile devices while electricity is out. Twitter and other media can help spread a message more rapidly and widely, but also can occasionally distort the message.

Although the advantages of sharing disaster warnings on Twitter generally outweigh the negatives, tornadoes are a bit trickier. It is common for multiple “Take Shelter Now!” tweets to be distributed widely when a tornado warning goes into effect, Catacchio wrote.

Because tornados are extremely localized, affecting small areas and being capable of shifting direction very rapidly, the tornado warning messages on Twitter run the risk of spreading unspecific information too broadly, sharing information with unaffected people, and eventually degrading the quality of the warnings, he wrote. “Constantly telling people to ‘take shelter’ may desensitize them to the warnings, especially if they turn out to be false alarms,” he said.

Even so, Catacchio concluded it is better to be safe than sorry. “We are inclined to suggest that with tornadoes, when in doubt, tweet it out,” Catacchio wrote.



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