Schedule a FREE Internet Marketing Audit

Social Media and Sandy: How Our Response to Natural Disasters Has Changed

November 9, 2012

Andrew, Katrina and now Sandy… These names will go down in history as the most destructive hurricanes that have ever landed on American soil. Social media didn’t exist when Hurricane Andrew decimated Miami and was barely getting started when Hurricane Katrinacame calling on New Orleans. In 2011, one forward-thinking blogger pondered how the response to Katrina might have been different if smart phones were prolific and sites like Twitter and Facebook had been around (Facebook was still a college-only site at the time,) but it wasn’t until Hurricane Sandy blew by that we could really see how social media has changed the way people and organizations respond to disasters.  

People gathered at a closed Starbucks to use the wireless network
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, many people up and down the East Coast were left homeless, either permanently or temporarily, without power for days and cleaning up a big, giant mess of proportions that can only be made by Mother Nature. During this time, social media kept families in touch, alerted people of where the greatest needs for help were and disseminated information from officials, as well as helped to spread rumors. Unfortunately, Hurricane Sandy was the first test case in the U.S. for how social media can both be utilized and abused in the aftermath of a widespread crisis.
Examples abound on the Internet of how social media kept pets, small businesses and homeless shelters alive in the days after Sandy. Many of the stories are heartwarming, but one of the downsides was that rumors were also quickly spread through social media – and just as quickly dispelled. Regular people and officials used tools like Twitterto coordinate relief efforts. News sites and blogs recount personal stories from the wreckage, such as the 13 restaurants in one town that banded together to provide Sunday dinner for their community. They used charcoal grills, generators and donations to feed residents in need and used Facebook to get the word out.
Mark Horvath, founder of Invisible People and advocate for the homeless, shared snippets of his Twitter conversations during and after the storm to help homeless shelters in NYC and surrounding areas find generators, food and supplies. The results were inspirational and probably saved lives. Other lives that needed saving in the aftermath of Sandy were the pets that were lost in the storm. Groups popped up on websites like Facebookand Craigslist to help reunite owners with their missing pets. An animal shelter in New Jersey that was badly damaged posted an SOS on Facebook and was amazed when 30 strangers showed up to help fix the facilities.
From an emergency management standpoint, city officials and local agencies used Twitter to provide critical informationand advice to residents, and the FDNY has been applauded for responding to individuals during the height of the storm. FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, even recommended using Twitter to communicate with authorities and updating family and friends via text messages or social media profiles. The American Red Cross not only used social media to provide information and support following the storm, but quickly broadcast a special text message number that allows $10 to be deducted from your wireless bill for their natural disaster relief fund. 
Fake images like this one quickly spread through social media
Amidst all the good ways that social media helped people in their time of need, there were some painful lessons learned, too. FEMA officials used Twitter to announce a “rumor control” area on its websitewhere rumors could be either confirmed or debunked. One of the biggest rumors, that the New York Stock Exchange building had flooded, was regrettably repeated in a report by the National Weather Service and soon after picked up by CNN. Both entities quickly corrected the report, which was deemed to have originated by a credible source. Consequently, the campaign manager for a U.S. House of Representatives candidate in New York resigned and is believed to have been the source of the rumor. On the positive side, misinformation can be corrected just as easily as it is disseminated and “official” social media accounts can usually be counted on for accurate information, as was pointed out by Emily Rahimi, the social media strategist for the New York Fire Department.
Many people still think of social media as something to do for fun or even as a “time waster” and worry about the social implications for future generations. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, we can clearly see that the benefit
s outweigh the pitfalls of being connected through social media, especially when it comes to regional or national emergencies. No one ever wants to be involved in a disaster like this but if you are, don’t you feel better knowing that you can still stay connected and reach out for help in your time of need? I know I do.