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Does FEMA Have a Fatal Internet Fixation?

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On the day that Hurricane Sandy was set to come ashore in New Jersey, Politico reported that FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and President Obama were relying solely on the Internet as a means for storm victims to access vital news and emergency information even though there was a widespread expectation of power and cable television failures. In his press briefing on Hurricane Sandy, President Obama wisely beseeched Americans threatened by Sandy to stay indoors and to go online at ready.gov for the latest updates, but the president failed to mention what to do if the power goes out. And the president was apparently not alone in that regard, Politico called FEMA's news desk only to find they didn't have any non-Internet information readily available, except to suggest that people call 911 in an emergency. When asked specifically where storm victims without electricity should turn for information, a FEMA worker said, "Well, those people who have a laptop with a little battery life on it can try that way. Otherwise, you're right."

Superstorm Sandy has now passed through and the recovery has begun yet FEMA's fixation with the Internet still seems solid, if not unshakable. In a new article about the devastating effects the storm has had on the region, the New York Times reported that David Sylvester of Midland Beach, whose house had burned down during the storm, was told by a FEMA representative on a site visit that he should go on the Internet and make an appointment:

[Sylvester] said that not until late Thursday afternoon did anyone from the Federal Emergency Management Agency stop by, and then the man said he should make an appointment. "First he told me to go on the Internet," Mr. Sylvester said, "and I said, 'Where should I plug it in?"

While it is true that the Internet is an important and vital tool when it comes to information distribution -- it should also be noted that it can prove problematic for the public to gain access when the power is off. And even though the President and FEMA may have failed to mention them, there are some low-tech but useful phone numbers to remember in emergency situations: 211 for shelter locations, 511 for information on traffic, and 311 for storm or weather related emergencies. FEMA should not only be promoting those numbers in their briefings to the public but also should work on expanding the basic level of preparedness for victims of storm emergencies beyond the internet before their fixation proves fatal.

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