The Story of the Southern Storms: told through Twitter

Post by: Kim Stephens

I often find myself explaining twitter to people who have never used the micro-blogging platform before, or at least haven’t used it very much. I find it a little like to trying to explain what an elephant looks like to someone who’s only seen the nose. But what occurred to me while reading the twitter feed after the devastating Southern storms, is that reading them was like reading a book written by 100s of people: each phase of the disaster is a different “chapter” and each tweet is one sentence in a paragraph. Sometimes the sentences are out of order and sometimes they don’t make sense until you read the entire page but, nonetheless, each one sheds a little more light on the plot.

How do you choose which book to read? The hashtags associated with each tweet organize the information into “books” if you will suffer with my analogy here. #ALwx stands for Alabama weather and by following that tag, you don’t even need to know or follow any of the individuals tweeting the information. For more insights into the definition of hashtags see the Twitter Fan Wiki definition.

I would like to use this horrible crisis to continue the analogy, but in no way do I mean to trivialize it. Rather, I hope to shed some light on what types of information is conveyed through the platform.

Chapter 1: Take Cover  If an event has a warning, as this one did,  you will find in the twitter feed many personal safety messages as well as information about the storms’ track. Most of these originate from government agencies, for example FEMA, NWS, local news stations and local public safety agencies. This tweet, for example started with FEMA.

But citizens also add their own observations.

Chapter 2: You Should be in a Shelter NOW! During a major storm event, the most common tweets are those describing the storms’ location. Notice how information about damage is reported simultaneously and almost instantly.

Chapter 3: Destruction

Pictures such as this one of Gardendale, AL start to show up in the twitter feed instantly, as soon as the storm passes. This pic was posted by a local news organization to their feed, but they received it from a citizen via twitter and yfrog.

Chapter 4: One Voice Emerges

During this recent crisis, James Spann, a meteorologist from ABC 33/40 TV, became the main storyteller. With over 25,000 followers of his own, and many people re-tweeting him, the website Tweetreach estimated that he reached 30,981 people with each tweet. The information he disseminated was original content based on NWS weather data, information people sent him via @ messages (such as donation information), and retweets of other info he found pertinent. This actually makes him more of a content curator, similar to the role Andy Carvin of NPR played (and continues to play) during the Mid-east peace uprisings.

Chapter  5:  We will Recover.

Recovery often begins with gratitude and with people figuring out ways to help each other. The twitter feed for this “chapter”  is no different. It is also a great place to find stories of hope, such as the tweet about a 8 year-old boy found alive after being sucked into a tornado. I also loved the story of the man finding his dog alive even though everything else was a total loss.

Many tweets point people to where they can donate to the relief effort either monetarily or physically, e.g. with manual labor to help clean up. 

I understand that twitter takes some getting used to in order to be able to “read the book”. But once you get the hang of it, it’s really a hard one to put down. If you’d like to donate to help out all those affected here’s the link  to the American Red Cross mid-Alabama chapter.

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6 responses to “The Story of the Southern Storms: told through Twitter

  1. Great article Kim.

    Another way twitter messages were amplified was through the use of hashtags.

    #ARwx was a potent single-source of information before, during and after this disaster.

    Following hashtags allows you to have a much broader scope of original information sources. You don’t have to follow individuals.

    I didn’t see hashtags specifically mentioned in the article.

  2. It’s funny, I actually had an entire paragraph about hashtags and edited it out. I think the hashtags tell you which book you are reading, to keep the analogy going. I think I’ll add that back in. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Assuming I am right in that May will be a busy month for disasters (see recoverydiva.com posting on April 30th), can something be done to set up media systems in advance of a disaster? For the pending MS and OH Valley flooding expected, the areas of impact can be pre-determined.
    What can be done in advance to facilitate preparedness and response activities?

  4. Pingback: No Gizmos Required « It's Not My Emergency

  5. kim26stephens

    Great point. Thinking about how to communicate with the affected population via every possible means should be done in the planning stage.

  6. Eduardo Maranhao

    Very good site !

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