This post is a story of the “Joplin Tornado Information” Facebook page and a reflection of what volunteers accomplished in the aftermath of the F5 tornado that roared through their town in 2011. Although much of the town was torn apart, the human connections actually grew– in part because people were able to use information communication technologies to come together virtually, as well as in person. This volunteer effort demonstrates what can be done with hard work, a few ground rules, and social media. They reached out to me to share their story. They also developed a “Social Media for Disaster Reovery Field Guide” which I will put up in a separate post.
“Joplin Tornado Info was created and managed by 23 year old Genevieve Williams, Neosho, Mo. less than two hours after the May 22nd tornado. JTI was honored as one of seven nominees for a 2011 Mashable Award in the Social Good Cause Campaign Category.”
Guest Post by: Rebecca Williams
“ST. JOHN’S HAS BEEN HIT THAT’S ALL WE KNOW FOR SURE”.
May 22, 2011 7:26 p.m.
First Joplin Tornado Info post
We heard the KSN news anchors beg people to take cover, and then take cover themselves…It was obvious Joplin was being hit by a tornado. Neosho and Joplin are close-knit communities and only 16 miles apart. How bad was it in Joplin? A friend that works at St. John’s Hospital posted on Facebook it had been hit. How could we find accurate information about what was going on? We searched the internet and found virtually nothing of help. We don’t remember for certain how it happened but within the hour at my coffee table using an iPhone, Joplin Tornado Info was born. When the page was started we had no idea we had just signed on as a communication link for one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. By sunrise the morning of the 23rd, the breadth and scope of what had happened became clear.
Across town, unbeknownst to us, a friend Joel Clark launched joplintornado.info website. None of us can remember exactly how we connected and merged JTI Facebook with joplintornado.info but it happened within the first 48 hours. People ask what was different about the Joplin response and what led FEMA to applaud the rescue and recovery. I would say the can-do and help-your-neighbor attitude of the people of the area, the on the spot response of area faith based organizations, the overwhelming support of the people of the region and the nation, and the presence of social media were deciding factors. This is the story of one social media outlet: Joplin Tornado Info.
The tornado hit at 5:41 p.m. At 7:36 p.m. Joplin Tornado Info Facebook page made its first post, went viral, began connecting dots between needs, resources, transportation, storage and dispersal and had become a trusted, timely news source.
The first days and even weeks after the tornado remain a blur, we have pulled out the worn legal pads that were JTI, (as it came to be called in those early days) and watched YouTube videos of the KSN tower cam footage and Red Cross volunteer Marie Colby’s video among others and talked about how it was at JTI after the tornado, to remember. Almost a year has passed and there are still not words to express what happened during Joplin’s early recovery. The dazed look on the faces of survivors is haunting.
We quickly reached over 49,000 fans. It all happened so fast and just as fast there were people helping us. Several groups and individuals such as the group of people that went to the computer lab at Crowder College and continuously posted critical information to JTI were unofficial admins of the page and vital to our efforts.
From the beginning we relied on the JTI community to post and repost for the good of the Joplin effort. Jennifer and Michelle both reached out from Alabama that first night to help. Volunteer admins signed on and others just took it upon themselves to help. JTI was a community page and early on people responded. Within hours we also had admins and or points of contact from all of the utility companies.
Relief organizations, Churches and news sources began posting on our site as well. We made every effort to read and answer every post. JTI pages moved so fast at one time that it was necessary to repost vital information often or it became lost in the Facebook newsfeed. We monitored all available news sources and reposted to JTI.
We didn’t sleep much during those first few weeks. We devoted every waking minute to JTI and coordinating efforts to connect the dots for the next two months. We were not alone in this; many people in our area put their lives and livelihoods on hold to do what they could for Joplin. There was such an overwhelming response to the need in Joplin and supplies came in so fast that FEMA the Red Cross, and other major organizations quickly became overwhelmed. Through JTI overflow storage was coordinated by Royce at the Galena High School Football Field. Royce became a vital part of JTI as we routed donations to area storage and dispersal locations. Solace, a youth based church on the fringe of ground zero with an average age of 24 and attendance of less than that went from evening service to relief center in the blink of an eye. People of the area did what they could when they could. Back in the day, if your neighbor’s barn was on fire you dropped what you were doing and ran to help your neighbor put the fire out. Joplin’s barn was on fire and area people responded as they had for generations.
In the beginning many of the community posts were people searching for missing loved ones, asking about shelter and water. One memorable post was the joy we had notifying people that huge water trucks were pulling in to memorial hall, to bring containers and get what you need. Water was off throughout Joplin and these trucks were such a blessing. JTI was not about fluff. Many survivors were literally hand to mouth. As we posted, food, water, bandage, clothing locations people texted our posts to survivors at ground zero who relied on cell phones texts for all outside communication. We accepted no donations, endorsed no specific church, charity or organization. JTI is a community page with no affiliation or loyalty to any group or entity. JTI made every effort to post timely, concise, accurate, unbiased information.
My daughter, Genevieve and I came to realize that in this region none of us are more than a degree of separation from someone who lost their life in the tornado. We all know someone who died personally or we know someone who knew someone. When locals speak of the tornado now, we don’t ask “were you affected”? We have come to realize that this was a regional tragedy we were all affected.
Our mourning for those we lost will go on as long as we do. Out of our grieve and necessity the tornado aftermath has given birth to change, innovation, invention, entrepreneurship, volunteerism and philanthropy that many of us were unaware was within us. Folks in the area take the tornado and recovery in stride and continue to look for ways to help those in need. Joplin and area folks are reaching out today to our neighbors, Branson and the several other communities hit by the Leap Day Storm, doing what we can and lending our experience. We are working in conjunction with David Burton, University Mo.-Extension, JTI admin since nearly the beginning from David had the foresight to set up 3 tornado info facebook pages in advance. One of these pages was Branson Tornado Info which by sad coincidence was put into use in the Leap Day Storm and quickly went viral with over 16,000 fans in 48 hrs. A free downloadable PDF “Social Media Use For Disaster Recovery-a field guide” is being released and will be linked on the JTI page.
As of this writing, the beginning of meteorological spring March, 1, 2012, JTI has had 87,112,786 post views from over 20 countries and languages. After peaking at just over 49,000. Nine months after the tornado JTI retains 47,754 of its original fans despite continued multiple daily posts. Our remaining 47,000 plus fans have a combined social media reach of 10 million people.