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hurricane news

Hurricane news | Where do you get your information?

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

06/09/2024

As 2017’s Hurricane Irma turned toward Key West, I was headed to my mother’s house in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Ranger Ed and the Cat5s would eventually end up staying on the island, doing cleanup work at Fort Zachary Taylor and helping neighbors reclaim their homes and streets. I was in search of hurricane news.

We had plenty of warning. Irma took shape off the Cape Verde Islands on Aug. 30. Late in the day on Aug. 31, it rapidly intensified to a Category 3 storm. By Sept. 5, Irma was a Cat 5 and on Sept. 6, Irma’s peak wind speed was 180 m.p.h. The record-shattering hurricane’s predicted path cut straight through the Florida Keys. Regardless of where it made landfall, Irma wasn’t going to bypass the Keys. Big Pine and its neighboring communities took a Cat 4 direct hit on Sept. 10.

I remember standing in my front yard on Aug. 30, muttering in frustration. My flight to Virginia was the next day. I scoured every news source I could find to help decide whether I should fly out or stick around to weather the storm on the island. I knew if I left and Irma proved to be the direct-hit Cat 5 we’d been dodging for a century and a half, there might be nothing left to come home to.

I went. Not because I wanted to, but because my mother needed me. It would be late September before I made it back to Key West.

And I left muttering about the lack of hurricane news and information. Those were the days before news organizations, government agencies, emergency management teams and assorted other information sources understood much about social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter (now X). TikTok wasn’t even launched internationally until September 2017 and few in the United States had even heard of it.

Hurricane news

Hurricane News | We need a single, unified information source

On Sept. 5, 2017, I gave up finding a unified, timely news source and created one. Key West Hurricane Irma is a Facebook page that aggregated storm news and information from dozens of trusted sources. With 10,000 “likes” and 11,000 followers, I added two or more daily news columns on my website and shared them via social media. I enlisted the help of retired Chicago journalist John Teets, who was also off-island in Tennessee. He did the overnights; I did the days. By the time we closed our “newsroom” in late September, John and I had reached more than a million people around the world.

Newspapers, those once-ubiquitous information sources printed on actual paper made from trees, were woefully inadequate. No way they could provide useful information. Their coverage was outdated even before the papers went to press.

National news organizations had no clue where the Florida Keys were and loved to conflate the chain of islands with one place — Key West. The National Weather Service did better than most at using social media to share hurricane news and thankfully U.S. Radio 1 was able to stay online and broadcasting.

There wasn’t then — nor is there now as best I can tell — a comprehensive Monroe County-Key West strategy for sharing with the public, in one easy-to-find place, live-time, up-to-date hurricane news. I suspect every agency and organization now knows how to post to social media. I also suspect they haven’t developed an analog version for when the power goes out, the internet goes dead and, heaven forbid, the radio station goes offline.

The success of the Key West Hurricane Irma digital newsgathering was its ability to stay online and pull multiple sources of information into one place. And that was only because both John and I were off the island where the power stayed connected and a few of our on-island sources had landlines and satellite phones — or knew somebody who knew somebody who did. But as Ranger Ed told me three days after Irma hit, “Y’all know more than we do. Unless I’m in my car with the radio on, I have no idea what’s happening.”

Posting to social media is only as good as the internet connection. When the power goes out, only a ballpoint-pen-on-paper bulletin with carbon paper is going to work. Post those analog notices multiple times a day in the places people gather: government buildings, emergency services sites, gas stations and, heck, even the bars. Tell folks before the storm when and where paper bulletins will be posted. They’ll come and spread the word. Just like in the really, really old days.

Here we are in June looking square into what could be our worst hurricane season ever. Local, reliable, easy-to-access storm news, especially in the aftermath, will be crucial to any recovery. If I have to, I’ll jump-start a social media platform. Maybe Teets will come along for round two. (Editor’s note: He said “yes.”)

And, if I am on the island, I’ll take my pen, paper, carbon paper and tape and post the old-fashioned way.

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