Shouting in the Dark: USVI’s Emergency Communication for Irma and Maria

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Emergency Partners Newsletter


February 20, 2018 

Shouting in the Dark: USVI’s Emergency Communication for Irma and Maria

 “When you’re communicating during an emergency, always think about what you’d say to your mom,” communication experts say. “What information would she need the most? How would you explain it to her? What would you need to know for sure before you told her? And just how far would you go to reach her?”

Nykole Tyson, Public Relations Director, USVI DOH

When Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) in September 2017, this wasn’t just advice. It was the reality for Nykole Tyson, USVI Department of Health’s (DOH’s) Director of Public Relations. She serves as the DOH spokesperson and emergency communicator and, like all of USVI’s responders and government officials, she is a survivor impacted by the storms. Her aunt’s house lost part of its roof, and the entire roof blew off her grandmother’s house. Nykole’s own home also had water and roof damage. She lived on a cot in her office in the DOH for several weeks between and after both storms. Her home was without water or power for four months. “I managed in my house by catching rain water in barrels and using solar lights sent to me by friends living stateside,” Nykole said.

The storms destroyed most of the territory’s communication infrastructure, making both personal and mass communication nearly impossible. Nykole was unable to reach her own family for four days after the second hurricane; yet within hours of both storms, she was on the radio telling her community how to stay safe, find shelter, and stay strong. So as Nykole pressed on, she wasn’t just talking to the public, she was talking to her neighbors, her community, her family, and her mom.

Hurricane Irma

In the hours before Hurricane Irma hit USVI, Nykole called into radio stations and distributed press releases, public service announcements (PSAs), and social media messages with critical information about how to prepare for the storm. On September 6, the storm hit, cutting off electricity, cell, and Internet access across most of the territory.  People sought resources, shelter, and safety, and many struggled to locate friends and loved ones. Virgin Islanders needed to know how to stay safe amongst the new dangers created by downed power lines, debris, mold, and floodwaters. Nykole found that only one radio station was working after the storm and immediately got on the air with energy and enthusiasm, giving safety tips and updates on available services. She also found that some people were still able to access Facebook. This became one of the primary means of communication throughout the response. The USVI DOH Facebook posts from September provide a glimpse into how events unfolded and demonstrate a persistent responsiveness to public concern.  

Hurricane Maria

Just 12 days later, USVI had to prepare its citizens for another major hurricane—Maria —and this time with limited ways to alert them and provide information. Virgin Islanders, Nykole herself included, needed to find shelter or prepare their homes, many already damaged, to keep them safe for the impact of another hurricane.  She phoned into the radio station from her house as she was securing her furniture and checking her emergency supplies. “We will get through this,” she repeated over the radio, while unknown to her listeners, she began driving to her mom’s house to give her the same safety information. Nykole had one hour to get back to the DOH before the curfew and had been unable to reach her family who had lost phone service after Irma.  

Nykole Tyson on a radio show

As the storm hit that evening, Nykole and about a hundred other DOH staff took care of special needs patients sheltered in the DOH building. As the wind battered and shook the concrete building, they thought of their communities, homes, and families on the islands. “We were all scared,” she recalls.

As soon as the clouds began to clear, Nykole’s voice rose back on the radio spreading the message, “We survived two category fives. We lost property but we still have our lives. All is not lost. It is time for us to rebuild.” 

Resourcefulness and Resilience

With typical means of communication down, USVI DOH staff were creative and resourceful. Immediately following the storms, paper flyers, radio, and in-person outreach were the best ways to share information. CDC and the U.S. Postal Service assisted with printing and distributing a flyer on key health tips to every mailbox on all four islands. CDC health communicators deployed to USVI to support the outreach efforts and were instrumental in printing and disseminating materials and starting conversations throughout the islands at churches, stores, disaster recovery centers, radio stations, and schools.   

When asked about lessons learned, Nykole says, “Do not underestimate the power of radio.” She is still making radio appearances to engage the community, repeat the main messages, answer questions, and encourage community members. While she is running errands, people stop to thank her and comment on her energy. “There were so many times I wanted to cry when I was on the radio, but they didn’t know that,” she says. They tell her how she kept them calm during the worst of the storms, and, hearing her now, still on the radio, lets them know that their government officials are still working hard for them.

Nykole’s experience shows how a talented spokesperson who is also a survivor can be the best voice to engage and calm a community after a disaster. Perhaps all responses could benefit from this type of commitment to caring for and informing the public as if they were family.