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Social Media, Small Business, and Sandy: A New Way to Respond to Natural Disasters

September 20, 2010

What Small Business Owners Can Do Now to Prepare for a Crisis
By Jamie Maloney
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 Katrina came 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 small businesses, people, and humanitarian organizations respond to disasters.
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 monitoring 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. For small business owners, social media may have meant the difference between forging on and closing up for good. 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. By looking at the response to Hurricane Sandy via social media, perhaps we can create a better plan to utilize these new tools for the next crisis.
Social Media as a Tool for News and Communication
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 Twitter to 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.
From an emergency management standpoint, city officials and local agencies used Twitter to provide critical information and 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.
Social Media as a Means of Survival
Mark Horvath, founder of Invisible People and advocate for the homeless, shared snippets of his Twitter conversations during and after the storm that helped 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 Facebook and 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.
The Downside of Social Media
Amidst all the good ways that social media monitoring 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 website where 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.
What We Learned for the Future
Despite some of the downsides of social media, I think that most people would agree it’s more useful than not. So what exactly did we learn from the experience with Hurricane Sandy? We know that social media can be a great source for news and information. The key is ensuring that you are getting and spreading correct information. The best way to ensure this is to follow official accounts for your local, state and national emergency and government agencies, as well as reliable media sources, before an emergency situation occurs.
When it comes to social media for small businesses , having an emergency plan can be critical to the life of your business. Make sure that you are able to operate from the road, if necessary, via laptops or tablets, and keep passwords and important files in an easily accessible place, like using the cloud for storage. If the Internet is down, a wireless card may still work or find a public space, like Starbucks, that has Internet available. Often, hospitals are the first places to get electricity back, so you may want to find a friend’s house or café that is on the hospital grid and work from there. Stay connected with your employees about their situations through social media network monitoring and email. Keep in mind that they will have to put their families first, but once everyone is safe and able to get back to work, having a plan to work virtually may save the day.
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 benefits 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.