- The Washington Times - Friday, October 7, 2016

Hurricane Matthew’s approach toward Florida caused the activation of Facebook’s Safety Check feature and the closing of four Disney theme parks Friday as the Sunshine State braced for a devastating storm that already claimed more than 200 lives in the Caribbean.

Disney’s decision to close its parks and Facebook’s deployment of a feature rarely used domestically are two examples of the practically unprecedented measures taken in anticipation of Hurricane Matthew, a Category 3 storm that brought heavy rains and high-speed winds to Florida early Friday.

Each of the Walt Disney World theme parks near Orlando was closed Friday due to forecasts, including Disney World, Universal Studios and SeaWorld, the company said in a statement. A Halloween event scheduled for Friday night at the Magic Kingdom has been canceled, and guests of Disney’s Fort Wilderness campground were evacuated early that morning, the Orlando Sentinel reported.

Friday marked only the fourth time ever Disney World has closed its gates since opening in 1971, according to Ryan Sloane of The Weather Channel. The last closure occurred as Hurricane Jeanne approached in 2004, and all four of the historic closings happened on account of inclement weather.

Facebook’s deployment of its Safety Check feature for social media users in Florida, meanwhile, signaled the first time the function has been used in the United States for a natural disaster.

Launched in 2011, the feature provides Facebook users with an easy way of letting people in their social network know their whereabouts in the event of a localized tragedy.

“If you mark yourself as safe, a push notification will be sent out to all of your Facebook friends to notify them of your status,” according to Facebook.

The feature was initially used solely for natural disasters, but Facebook began activating it for other situations starting with last November’s terrorist attacks in Paris, France.

Facebook has only made its Safety Check feature available within the U.S. a handful of times, and Friday marked the first instance where it was offered to American users as the result of a natural disaster. It was first used in the U.S. after a gunman opened fire in an Orlando nightclub in June, and has only been used domestically after shootings or bombings prior to Friday’s deployment, and never on such a large scale.

Hurricane Matthew already claimed more than 280 lives in the Caribbean as it barreled toward Florida late Thursday with wind speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour. Gov. Rick Scott described the storm as a “monster,” and millions of Floridians have been asked to flee inland.

President Obama preemptively declared a state of emergency in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina on Thursday in anticipation of the storm.

• Andrew Blake can be reached at ablake@washingtontimes.com.

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