Helping New Yorkers Get Out of Irene’s Path

With Irene looming menacingly on New York City, Mayor Bloomberg rightly initiated a mandatory evacuation of all of zone A flood zones and some parts of zone B. Zone C is the last sector and confined to only the deepest parts of the city, areas that only a Category 5 hurricane can affect. This was the first time in history that a mandatory evacuation had been initiated for NYC.

Continuing from the announcement on the 26th, NYC’s well oiled social media machine kicked into high gear, promoting’s Severe Weather site as the primary avenue for citizens to figure out if they were living in an area that needed to be evacuated. The site had a convenient Hurricane Evacuation Zone Finder utility that got overwhelmed under high demand. For the next few hours the site remained under heavy pressure, responding sporadically to citizen requests. 

At about 11pm, we decided to do something about it. We understood that the 27th was going to be a very important day due to most of zone A evacuating between the hours of 8am and 5pm EST. Estimates pegged the number of people affected by this evacuation at 370,000.

Whatever CiviGuard was going to deploy, it had to be done before 8am so that citizens could take full advantage. The first two things we did related to making the ‘ReadyNYC’ and ‘Evacuation Zone Map’ PDF documents into mobile friendly JPGs that could be instantly read via a mobile browser. 

» ReadyNYC Brochure

» Hurricane Evacuation Zone Map

Beyond these more stop-gap attempts at assisting, we felt like we could do more by combining NYC’s extensive open data mine and our technical capabilities. We quickly found the raw data for hurricane evacuation zones available in a Google Maps friendly format, along with NYC shelters. Both of those data sets were invaluable in enabling the rapid creation of our ‘Should I evacuate?’ mobile application. 



We knew that New Yorkers would want the ability access zone information off their mobile devices. NYC has 60%+ smartphone penetration and 98% broadband penetration. They are increasingly used to a high degree of context in their web interactions. 

The ‘Should I evacuate?’ application enabled New Yorkers to:

  • instantly know if they need to evacuate based on their location
  • look-up other locations to see if their loved ones need to evacuate
  • tap and look-up near-by shelter locations in the event they need one

Since we had used HTML5 for the application, it could be accessed over a variety of devices and browsers: iPhone, iPad, Android, Chrome, Safari and FireFox.

No need to go into an app store, no need to find the app. Just a simple to remember link that can be distributed over Twitter, Facebook, Email or SMS:

Here are some key facts and figures: 

  • 7,503 citizens validated their evacuation status on the 27th.
  • CiviGuard experienced a 67X bump in traffic on the 27th.
  • Concept to live deployment in 7hrs 38mins.

We were truly amazed by how conducive HTML5 can be in a disaster preparation and response context. Our investment in HTML5 standards since 2009 got returned, with interest when we saw it in action for the people of NYC. 

Lessons Learned?

  • Simplicity drives adoption. Users got their evacuation status in 2 taps/clicks.
  • Links are friendly. People were able to share the app over social media extensively.
  • Open data rules. We simply could not have done this without the NYC Data Mine.

We are truly fortunate to call NYC home. They have strong leadership, progressive thinkers (Rachel Sterne for one) and great operations personnel. They got the job done, and kept NYC safe when it mattered the most. By 10:30pm, the evacuation window had ended

Last but not the least, major props to one of our super-talented engineers, Timothy W. Holman, for working with our product team and getting this application out on-time and on-spec! Keep rocking!