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Victoria, Texas, Talks Bolstering Emergency Communications

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, city officials are considering how to upgrade emergency communications channels.

(TNS) -- John Swanson was among Victoria residents equipped with emergency supplies who decided to brave Hurricane Harvey from home.

Swanson was as ready as he could be. He planned to use an emergency radio to stay informed as the eye of the hurricane inched closer to Victoria County, he told the City Council at a meeting in September.

But there was a problem.

Officials were predominantly using social media to communicate, and the National Weather Service's radio transmitter in Corpus Christi was damaged by the Category 4 storm. That meant Swanson - and other people who weren't planning to rely on cell phones - had limited access to emergency communications during the storm.

"I was on emergency radio - had the batteries and everything for it - and the radio didn't (work)," Swanson told city officials.

Hurricane Harvey rapidly intensified just days before slamming the Texas Gulf Coast, leaving government officials and communication providers little time to prepare. Fortunately, cell service didn't go down, allowing for authorities to use social media sites to publish the majority of updates - about 215 posts total during the storm and its aftermath, according to city data.

Officials also ran a 24-hour emergency hotline to answer residents' questions. But it was activated the day before the storm with a number that hadn't been used as a city hotline before, according to city officials.

The storm came at a time when communications practices are teetering between analog and digital technologies, forcing officials to use multiple platforms to reach residents of all demographics. As the dust settles and officials chip away at recovery, they're beginning to discuss how to improve communications during the next disaster.

So far, one idea tossed around is for the city to operate an AM radio feed. Others want to explore text message updates.

"The thing with mobile is it's kind of throwing a kink in emergency communications," said O.C. Garza, a city spokesman who worked around the clock during the storm.

As Hurricane Harvey tossed trees into utility lines, residents were forced to rely on cellphones when homes lost electricity to power televisions and internet-based landlines. Some residents had to scramble to charge cellphones in their cars, while others planned to use radios.

Swanson was one of the residents who planned to get updates from hand-crank or battery-powered radios. He doesn't use Facebook and ended up using his phone to call his daughter, he said.

She told him the news over the phone while Hurricane Harvey struck, she said.

"Fortunately, I've got a daughter who's pretty smart on this communication, Facebook wizardry," Swanson told the City Council. "And she could relay information to me."

Cara Cuite, a psychologist who studies emergency communications at Rutgers University, said Swanson was lucky to get help from his daughter. Radio is often viewed as the go-to form of communication when electricity and communication lines go down, she said.

"Seniors are not best reached through social media, and that hand-cranked radio is recommended for people to have in the case of emergencies," Cuite said. "That is viewed often as the best tool to use in emergencies."

Cuite, who focused her studies on Hurricane Sandy, said government officials should use as many platforms as possible to reach residents of all demographics.

To be as effective as possible, authorities must do a lot of work before the storm, which could include testing call notification systems or talking directly with vulnerable residents who might need help evacuating, she said.

"(It's) this whole idea of building trust and getting to know your community in advance so you're able to reach them," Cuite said.

For example, cities or counties could advertise phone numbers for hotlines or tell residents how to get information well before a disaster strikes.

But that proved difficult during Harvey, which rapidly intensified before slamming Victoria County. Residents, including some government officials, had trouble finding out what was happening.

"A lot of citizens were calling," Councilman Jeff Bauknight said. "And I had no idea - I absolutely had no idea of what to tell them."

The morning after Harvey struck, electricity and the internet crashed, leaving residents to rely largely on cellphones. Residents started calling Bauknight, but he too didn't have answers to their questions about water service and debris pickup.

"Communication coming out to citizens was lacking," he said during a City Council meeting.

In Victoria, the city started running a 24-hour hotline just a day before Harvey made landfall. The hotline, which had a telephone number that hadn't been used as a city hotline before, received about 8,000 calls over a week and a half, according to city data.

During that time, at least one Spanish speaker manned each shift, the city's spokesman said.

"People were calling throughout the whole time," Garza said.

But Councilwoman Josephine Soliz said during the council meeting that the hotline didn't work well for some residents who were desperately seeking information after the hurricane.

"There was a lot of people who were frustrated with that because they wouldn't get answers," Soliz said. "They wouldn't pick up the phone."

Emergency officials also used an emergency notification system - commonly known as reverse 911 - to warn residents of the oncoming storm. Calls went out four times - once Aug. 24, twice on the 25th and again on the 27th, according to county data. Harvey made landfall the night of Aug. 25.

The system sent anywhere from 31,000 to 35,000 calls each time it was used. The day before Harvey hit, more than 10,000 people answered these emergency calls, but that number dropped to less than 5,000 Aug. 27.

There were reports, however, that some people didn't get the notifications.

"It's probably not perfect," Garza said. "There could be some technical problems."

Garza and other emergency officials are in the process of figuring out ways to improve emergency communications. Figuring out how to get an AM radio feed, which could be heard from weather radios, is one idea. Another option is to post more updates to the city's website for people who don't use Facebook.

There are also things residents can do to better prepare themselves for emergencies, Garza said. Purchasing a rotary or landline phone that doesn't run an internet service can give residents a critical communication line if cellphone service goes down, he said.

Residents with cellphones also should be sure to sign up for Victoria's emergency notifications, he said.

"If you're going to stay ... how are you going to find out what's going on?" Garza said. "When a hurricane is bearing down on you, you ought to have some idea of how you're going to get information."

©2017 Victoria Advocate (Victoria, Texas) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.