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Tropical Storm Debby unfolds on social media

Facebook, Twitter could play a bigger role in forecasting

Photo submitted by a viewer to Fort Myers CBS affiliate WINK-TV

ORLANDO, Fla. – A picture is worth a thousand words and when it comes to tropical forecasting, nothing is more telling than the flood of photos and videos posted to Facebook and Twitter.

The story of Tropical Storm Debby continues to play out in this spectrum of the cybersphere -- photos of Brighthouse field in Tampa looking more like a pond than a baseball stadium; wicked tornados ripping across parts of Southwest Florida; and, ominous skies and sinkholes making their mark in Central Florida.

The power of social media is undeniable and forecasters and emergency managers alike know they have to somehow harness it.

The National Hurricane Center established a Facebook page last year and watched their followers grow as Hurricane Irene reached its way up New England.

"It was kind of interesting to watch as each storm formed we'd have a new blip of followers that would join because of the different areas that were being impacted," said Dan Brown, a warning coordinator for the agency.

The NHC would like to do more with social media.  Right now, their Twitter feed is used to send out updated forecasts.  On Facebook they are a little more interactive. 

But they would like to figure out a way to use what's being shared by everyone to sharpen forecasting, including using pictures of tornados, flooding, and damage to confirm predictions.

"The problem here is that we don't have a huge staff. We really just have the forecasters who are dedicated to putting out the forecast, so we have to be very protective of the forecasters' time," said Brown.

While the photos and videos can help, meteorologists at the NHC also cautioned anyone heading out into the storm to snap a picture.

"I would really advise people though if the conditions get really bad and you get into the hurricane force winds you may think it's safe to venture out for a few minutes but it only takes second for a tree or a limb to snap off or for a roof tile to fly off your house and hit you and cause you a lot of harm," said Brown.