FEMA message in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia
The massive prep for Hurricane Florence reveals the sophistication for modern out of home (OOH) media.
Fast-changing, targeted content conflates news, weather, and social media.
The Category 4 hurricane was moving 17 miles per hour, 634 miles offshore, said digital billboards in Wilmington, NC, on mid-morning Wednesday (September 12). Wind speed – at that moment – was 135 miles per hour.
Like hurricane updates on other news platforms, those numbers changed.
In nearby Carolina Beach, NC, three digital billboards displayed an evacuation notice, starting Tuesday.
“Can you imagine going through one of these hurricanes 50 or 80 years ago, with no warning?” pondered Mike Russell at Fairway Outdoor Advertising in Wilmington, NC
In Jacksonville, NC, digital billboards said updates were available from the National Hurricane Center (emergencyNHC.com).
Besides to speed and flexibility, emergency messaging also spotlights public-private partnerships. When Wilmington and Jacksonville authorized digital billboards, the localities arranged for access to these signs as a means of communicating with the public, says Paul Hickman of Fairway Outdoor Advertising in Raleigh, NC.
In Virginia, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) posted a coastal evacuation notice on high-contrast digital billboards. FEMA also warned of flooding: “Turn Around, Don’t Drown.”
Both messages referenced social media (#Florence and www.vaemergency.gov).
Florida as Pioneer
In August of 2008, a partnership between the billboard industry and Florida’s emergency agency was first activated by Tropical Storm Fay. Thirty-seven different messages were displayed in 11 counties on more than 75 digital billboards.
This new communications tool impressed Craig Fugate, then head of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management.
The following year (2009), Fugate would take command of FEMA, which posted a billboard case study from Florida on its website: “Digital technology enables quick delivery of emergency messages via high-tech billboards. Public-private partnerships harness these high-tech signs to inform the public about weather warnings, evacuation routes, and safety-related information.”
After the busy 2017 hurricane season, current FEMA Administrator William B. “Brock” Long told Congress: “Use of digital signage along highways is part of the layering and unity of messaging to reach affected communities, and supplements radio and mobile alerts.”
Immediately after the Boston Marathon bombing (2013), digital billboards featured a crime-tips hotline and delivered news.
As the manhunt intensified for a second suspect, the FBI used Boston-area billboards to show the fugitive’s photo.
Fifty-eight FBI cases have been resolved as a direct result of information prompted by digital billboards, the agency says.
Lessons from Katrina
Recovery efforts from Hurricanes Katrina (2005) to Maria (Puerto Rico in 2017) are dissected and debated. One lesson after Category 5 Katrina hit New Orleans was to quickly communicate FEMA’s contact information so victims could pursue claims.
Six year later, when a violent multi-vortex tornado ripped through Tuscaloosa, FEMA took this photo, proving its efforts to communicate in tough terrain:
FEMA/Mike Moore Photo by Mike Moore – May 05, 2011 – Location: Tuscaloosa, AL