Tornado Stricken School District Uses Social Media to Aid Recovery

Post by: Kim Stephens

The massive tornadoes that struck Alabama and Missouri in late spring and early summer didn’t spare public school buildings. In Joplin, the school system suffered major damage. They also lost some of their students and staff: seven students and one staff member were killed. (These deaths occurred off-campus. The tornados struck in the evening.)  I often discuss how social media is used during a crisis, but what is not often highlighted by me or others is the great contribution social media make in the recovery phase–after the national media have left and the spotlight is taken off of the crisis. Joplin Independent School District provides a great example of how organizations can use the medium as a platform to pinpoint specific needs, reach out to those who still have an interest in helping, and demonstrate their progress and resilience, e.g. “We will open our school August 17, 2011.”

In order to tell the story of their recovery, I will highlight some of their experiences during the height of the crisis. I was able to reach the Communications Specialist of the Joplin’s school district, Casey Owens, who provided great insight to their social media presence, goals and policies both pre and post disaster. Of note, they were using social media for communications before the tornado. In particular, it was used at the district level with only a few people allowed to post content. The content was generally geared toward  highlighting overarching district success stories, or what she called “notables,” and announcing cancellations and other community-at-large information. Since the High School has so much information on its own, they are currently in the process of developing a page just for them. This is a pre-crisis post.

But after the tornado, their facebook page has become one of their primary means of communicating with the public, much more so than pre-event. In fact, in the immediate aftermath of the tornado it was their ONLY means of communication.

Ms. Owens indicated that their website and email services were hosted on a local server which had either spotty or no service at all for at least a week. Sheer volume made cell phone service unreliable.  Therefore,  the communications department accessed facebook (and twitter) from home computers outside of the impacted area, and this was the only reliable source of communication. As an aside, Ms. Owens noted that the primary audience of their twitter account was most likely the media versus the local population.

I have mentioned in earlier posts that social media are the new flagpoles, the place were people rally in order to be accounted for after a crisis. This was also true for Joplin, ISD. In the immediate aftermath, they asked both staff and students to post information about their well-being directly to the facebook site. One of the first posts requesting this information received over 300 comments.

By May 27, 6 days after the storm, they had accounted for 97% of their staff and students.

Almost immediately, posts started to address how people could help with recovery. They also asked people to tell them what their needs were.

Interestingly, most people that commented to this post were still indicating that they were OK. Of the 97 comments only one requested assistance.

The district however, understood that there would be needs that had to be met, and with offers of donations pouring in, it was necessary for them to figure out how to organize the recovery effort into a systematic process. At this point, Joplin ISD turned to a program that was also in place (although somewhat recently) pre-tornado, called Bright Futures. The Bright Futures program is an innovative solution to try to increase their district’s high school graduation rate. They determined a child’s academic career cannot be viewed through tunnel but rather a prism. In other words, when is a child ready to learn? They aren’t ready to learn if they show up to school in flipflops in freezing weather, or if they are going hungry on the weekend, or if they don’t have any books in their home, or if they are homeless…the list is endless. The program utilizes social media to broadcast needs (without compromising the identity or privacy of the student) in order to find community resources that can meet those needs. Their facebook page lists their pre-crisis mission: “This program will serve as a vehicle to deepen community involvement in the Joplin School District’s efforts to tackle poverty issues and improve student academic performance. This will be accomplished through various partnerships.”

I asked Ms. Owens what impact social media had on the program. She indicated that the impact was profound. Their initial goal was to try to meet a student’s needs within 24 hours. With social media, the needs are met within MINUTES–literally.  In fact, they ended up with a different problem, many community members were disappointed that they were not able to contribute because the needs were met so quickly. Therefore, program administrators developed a list they keep off-line of people who want to help and what resources they have available. One interesting example of the program in action, a disadvantaged family’s water heater stopped working, the Bright Future’s staff  found a company willing to donate the parts to fix it and another person who could do the labor to make the repairs.

After the tornado struck, the Bright Future’s program is now doing the same mission but on a much larger scale: matching resources (which have come from all over the country) to needs. They allow people to post to the wall on the Bright Futures facebook page and after the tornado these mostly involve people describing what they are willing to donate. The program uses the site to post unmet needs as they become known. Needs can include everything from eye glasses to bikes and even, on rare occasion, housing needs for homeless children. Again, each of these needs are met within minutes.

On a broader scale, they have created an adopt-a-classroom program whereby people or organizations can contribute items for a specific classroom. They also have an “adopt-an-eagle” program, in order to ensure that all students school supply needs are met. Watch this great video on the overall program–which also highlights their use of another social media platform, YouTube. As a take-away lesson I think the most important thing another school district could learn from this example is the importance of having social media in place before a crisis. During a disaster or crisis event is no time to learn.

I’d like to thank to Ms. Owens for the wealth of information she provided. I hope you all continue towards a speedy recovery.

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10 responses to “Tornado Stricken School District Uses Social Media to Aid Recovery

  1. Thank you to Ms. Owen for her leadership in the application of social media for emergencies and thank you to Kim Stephens for highlighting this story. The positive attributes of social media to solve problems during response AND recovery phases, specifically the way participants (the Whole Community) can mobilize and adopt active coping mechanisms to rebuild and meet local needs is what leads to true community resiliency. Bravo, Joplin Schools!

  2. kim26stephens

    Thanks for your comment. I love writing posts like this, highlighting great success stories! They are truly an inspiration.

  3. (Thinking from the mitigation side…)
    After an earthquake centered in Long Beach, CA in 1933 caused unreinforced masonry to fall and kill several students, California adopted the toughest school construction standards in the nation. I wonder what the marginal cost for requiring schools constructed in tornado-prone locations to have storm shelters would be. What’s an acceptable ROI?

    https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Field_Act

  4. kim26stephens

    No one was in the school when the tornados struck, so the fatalities did not occur on the premises. I apologize for any confusion. We can only speculate as to what might have happened if children were in the buildings.

  5. Pingback: A customer’s bad experience is shared with ten people | Enrollmark

  6. Kim; hi – I am responsible for media and internal communications at the Fire Service in New Zealand and am finding your blog incredibly useful in designing my new crisis communication plan following the Christchurch earthquakes. Just wanted you to know, I appreciate all your help – even if you don’t know you’re providing it!
    Thanks.
    Karlum

  7. Great article about tornado relief and social media.

    A cool infographic just came through my twitter feed about tornadoes and thought I would share as we will probably use it in our classroom.

    http://www.buildingsguide.com/blog/tornado-facts-safety-tips-infographic

    Thanks for the great tornado info, it will help out in my classroom.

  8. I sometimes wish I had more time. Then I could read through all your great blogposts!

    • Thank you so much. That is very sweet. There is a lot of content here. Sometimes I even forget what I’ve written!

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