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FEMA App: Your In-Pocket Disaster Preparedness Plan

Summer is here, with hazy, hot and humid days that can give way to dangerous storms. It’s also hurricane season — and as the Northeast has learned in the past several years, we’re not immune.   FEMA is helping people prepare for severe weather with a new smartphone app.

Sudden downpours, pop-up thunderstorms and flash-floods are Northeast climate staples. The Federal Emergency Management Agency decided to take advantage of the ubiquitous smartphones we carry by employing them in a two-way flow of information in preparing for and dealing with disasters.

Rafael Lemaitre is FEMA’s Director of Public Affairs.  "An increasing number of Americans are not only owners of smartphones but relying on these smartphones to get information from their state, local and federal officials."

With the FEMA app, you can keep track of conditions by monitoring weather maps for up to five different cities or counties.     "And then when there's an alert for severe weather or a tornado watch or a flooding threat or something else, you'll get that on your phone and it will give you instructions on what to do to prepare. And the reason we built in more than one location is many of us have friends or family members that live in other parts of the country that may not be as tech savvy or that we just care about and wanna make sure they're safe, and so we've built in a way for you to keep tabs on your friends and family members and then share that information with them if weather threatens their community."

Lemaitre notes the app can run in standalone mode if cellular and wi-fi services are disrupted.   "Even if you don't have connectivity, as long as you have battery power, you'll be able to at least access some of the basic information you need to prepare for a challenge."

There are checklists and preparation tools, so you'll have your personal or family disaster plan right in your pocket.    "We really work hard to encourage folks to have a family communication plan, which is basically just sitting down and figuring out what you would do if you were separated and a disaster struck and you couldn't go back home. Sheltering is part of that so the app is designed to make it easier for folks to not only find shelters but put in contacts in there so that if you get separated from friends or family, can stay in touch."

Should your area be declared a federal disaster, you can use the app to register with FEMA to begin recovering.   "I think a lot of folks still think that FEMA can make you whole after a disaster, that's not true, we can never do that, but what we can do, and the app is a part of tis, is help folks get back up on their feet."

The FEMA app is free and available for iPhone, Android and BlackBerry phones. Natural disasters, man-made disasters such as nuclear events and terror-related information will all be channeled through it as necessary.   "We encourage folks to listen to state and local officials and their local media, folks like you who have the latest information we really rely on to get the word out so that people know what to do."

Mark Wysocki is the state climatologist for New York and senior lecturer on meteorology at Cornell University. He says the Northeast's biggest threat affects our water supply: drought versus excessive rainfall, and the dangers posed by flash floods and ice storms.  "Right now that would be focusing on the wintertime and the fact that we have seen trends over the last 40 years or so that have indicated less and less snowfall has been occurring across the Northeast, that has been replaced however with rain or ice storms so that our total amount of precipitation hasn't dropped. But in terms of how we get the precipitation, there has been some drastic changes."

The Ice Storm of 1998 was one of the worst natural disasters that has ever impacted the region, and a 2013 ice storm left thousands of homes and business in New York, Vermont and Maine without electricity. 

Wysocki points out that while FEMA looks at short-term extreme events, we should keep in mind medium and long-term threats like droughts, heat waves and cold spells, which cover much larger areas and have greater impacts on populated areas.   "You know a hurricane, OK, two or three days, major impact maybe a small area of New York state gets hit, whereas if we're talking about a drought, we're talking the entire Northeast."

Whether a disaster is long- or short-term, sharing information and making plans helps people cope. Again, FEMA's Rafael Lemaitre:   "You know, we can't prevent something from happening but when it does you're prepared as much as you can be and that you bounce back stronger so that you can recover more quickly."

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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