Tag Archives: Deepwater Horizon oil spill

Can Social Media aid mental health recovery after the BP Oil Spill?

Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill - MODIS/Aqua Detai...

Image by SkyTruth via Flickr

Post by: Kim Stephens

When a disaster occurs people organize themselves to help recover and this helps the community heal, not just tangibly, but according to mental health professionals, intangibly as well, with mental health recovery. Increasingly, social media are being used to help in that regard. For example, just this week in the aftermath of students being held hostage by another student for many hours at a high school in Marinette, Wisconsin, a facebook page was launched in order to “to get the high school students back together as a community … and to help move forward.”  We also reported on this blog about similar efforts after the Boulder, Colorado wilfires.

However, this phenomenon does not seem to be playing out in the aftermath of the BP Oil Spill along the gulf coast. According to experts interviewed for an interesting story on NRP this week entitled: BP Oil Spill Scars similar to Exxon Valdez,  man-made technological disasters such as DeepWater Horizon and Exxon Valdez can literally alter the way a community functions.

“It’s almost like Exxon Valdez fast-forward,” says Steven Picou, an environmental sociologist at the University of South Alabama. Picou has spent the past 20 years tracking the mental health fallout around Prince William Sound.”In Alaska, the communities up there were blindsided,” he says. “They did not realize what was happening to them until the suicides started and the divorces started and the domestic violence became acute in the communities.” Picou is seeing the same problems now on the Gulf Coast, even sooner than they surfaced after the Exxon Valdez spill. In Alaska, he says, there were seven suicides starting about four years after the spill. He says at least two suicides have been linked to distress over the BP oil spill. In response, the Red Cross, houses of worship and mental health providers have stepped up counseling and outreach. Picou is training “peer listeners” — people ready to identify oil spill-related stress and help their families and neighbors cope.

In fact, after digging around, I haven’t really found an organic organization offering that same kind of “moving-together-as-a-community” mentality that you see after most natural disasters. Of course traditional groups such as the American Red Cross are providing services, but it seems telling that the only type of groups to spontaneously form are ones offering heavy doses of vitriol pointed at either BP, the government or both.

The group on the left is still around after protesting the spill, but doesn’t offer any “hey, let’s get together and help each other” information. The NPR story, explained why this might be the case:

“Therapist Pam Maumenee, who is on the oil spill crisis team at AltaPointe Health Systems in Bayou La Batre, Ala., says natural disasters tend to build helping, therapeutic communities.

‘Everybody comes out after a hurricane. You clean up. You bond together,’ Maumenee says. But the opposite is true of a man-made disaster like the oil spill,’ she says. ‘What you see are families against families, brothers against sisters, neighbors against neighbors,’ she says. ‘The community becomes quite corrosive. There have been battles over who got lucrative contracts to work the BP cleanup and who didn’t. And there’s growing resentment over the claims process in the community.”

As a profound example of this one need only look at the facebook pages of spontaneous groups such as the one highlighted above from the oil spill, and contrast that with a facebook page from a natural disaster, such as the Fourmile Wildfire near Boulder, Colorado. The Fourmile page is devoted to the firefighers, and months after the event they are still active in organizing benefits for affected community members. Instead of an ugly picture of the fire, they’ve chosen nice pic of the downtown area for their page.

Officials pages exist, of course, including a page by HHS specifically for mental health complete with 30 second videos by the Surgeon General. CDC has its own Mental Health web page and “peer listening” has been implemented, according to the NRP story.

This is not an effort to measure government, established NGOs, or even BP’s performance with regard to addressing mental health issues, many other are doing that. But I think I did find some evidence that what Ms. Maumenee indicated seems to be true: there didn’t seem to be any organically formed “therapeutic communities” in the social media arena. If you know of some, please comment.

Social media during crisis response: Five general lessons for emergency managers

Post by: Kim Stephens

I want to make some generalizations regarding lessons the emergency management community is learning from the deployment of social media during crises. These lessons are mostly based on domestic events, since the international response framework has decidedly different challenges/opportunities than the US system, although we are starting to see some of the efforts in the international humanitarian crisis mapping community “bleed” into the US. This isn’t a dissertation, just some observations.

1. If you build it, they will come: If you set up systems to engage the public through social media, don’t be surprised when the public responds.

According to the report “Unending Flow” by Gerald Baron, mentioned in an earlier posting, at the height of the DeepWater Horizon Oil Spill Response “… typically 5 to 7 responders per day were focused on managing inquiries averaging nearly 1000 inquiries PER DAY (emphasis added). In some periods of high activity as many as 7 inquiries per minute were received.”  (page 16)

Now the question becomes, what do you do with all of that information?  The software the Coast Guard Command employed, called PIER, did allow them to track  and identify trending topics. Most of the inquiries could easily be categorized and therefore easily answered with pre-approved/pre-scripted responses. However, what about those few inquiries that could become valuable situational awareness data?  A direct link between the Joint Information Center and the Unified Command, according to Mr. Baron, will be a key in all response efforts to successful integration of this potentially valuable information.

  • Lesson 1.1: Response organizations, when deploying social media, need to be able to ramp up their public information/communications staff to engage the public in a timely manner.
  • Lesson 1.2: The information that comes from the public could be actionable intelligence, the Incident Command System should allow for that  information to flow back to the incident command staff.
  • Lesson 1.3: Your FaceBook page, twitter account, email account, website, you name it, will “blow up” (as the kids say). Ensure you have enough computing power to handle large influxes.
  • Lesson 1.4: Be prepared to continue building: widgets, video-feeds, live chats with responders…the list goes into infinity because who knows what new tools will be available for the next response. What we do know is that the public will want access to information through that yet unknowable tool. Hint, hint: iPad app.

2. If you don’t build it, they will come anyway. People will turn to social media tools to both provide and find information from any and all sources.

This point is illustrated by “Amanda’s Map“. The map was curated by Amanda Pingel, a University of Colorado student, during the Colorado Wildfires this past September and listed information such as fire areas, evacuation areas, response efforts, etc. This map had 1,826, 905  views. This was not the only map curated by civilians, there were at least 3 others with widespread distribution.

  • Lesson 2.1: If you don’t provide interactive, real-time information to the public they will find it elsewhere and then wonder–loudly, “Why didn’t the government provide this information!” Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, Incident Commander for the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill recently said:
    “We all have to understand that there will never again be a major event in this country that won’t involve public participation. And the public participation will happen whether it’s managed or not.”
  • Lesson 2.2: Publicly curated information isn’t by definition “wrong”. We need to find a way to embrace this new-found power in the public. People will use this data to help themselves and others which will therefore ultimately result in more resilient communities.

3. Information moves fast. Cumbersome approval processes will ensure you are never the first ones reporting anything.

Referring to the Oil Spill, Mr. Baron points out “As the information flow and approval process became increasingly bureaucratic and approval times lagged, The External Affairs and JIC teams were often caught behind by the rapid nature of social media information sharing.” As a key lesson, Mr. Baron implores:

Lesson 3.1: “…response leaders must vigorously resist the inherent tendency to add overly burdensome layers of vetting and approval. As the approval process calcified by a stronger and stronger top-down presence, the value of the External Affairs and JIC operation diminished to the point where in many issues and situations it had no voice.”

4. Go where the people are: Social Media can be used as a form of rapid communication and save lives, especially with populations that use social networking extensively.

From a headline today (10-20-10): “Social Media Network Helps Prevent Disaster”. “Aid officials in the Philippines have credited social media sites like Facebook and Twitter with keeping the number of deaths caused by Typhoon Megi to only 10 so far. Thousands of people were persuaded to move to safer places or take precautionary measures before Megi struck on 18 October, officials say.   Alexander Rosete, a spokesman for the Philippines National Red Cross, told IRIN. “Now that we are using the Internet, the services are free of charge, and we send messages at no cost to us. It’s also more reliable and faster because nearly everyone’s on social networking sites.” The Philippines have also been described as the “text messaging capital of the world”.

  • Lesson 4.1: People will respond to alerts through social networking communication systems, especially if this is how they are used to receiving information. This, would be a lesson of particular importance for emergency managers of Colleges and Universities. I would think the American college student population rivals the Philippines in terms of social media usage. All University or Community College’s communications plans should include social media and text messaging as a way to quickly reach the student population. (In fact, text messaging alert services are almost ubiquitous at Universities).
  • Lesson 4.2: How people receive information is changing. Response personnel need to know and understand what means their own community uses to stay informed.

5. Especially at the local level, emergency managers shouldn’t be surprised if people with highly technical skills show up and offer to help.

Social media has provided new opportunities for people with technical skills to aid response organizations. Some volunteers are interested in passing out sandwiches to survivors, and others are interested in creating a multi-dimensional, 3D, geo-spatial application that models the unfolding events in real time. Of course, I’m exaggerating, but only a little. A case in point is the San Bruno Fire. Luke Beckman, a former Director of Disaster Operations for InStEDD, knew the capabilities he and others could bring to the response. Due to a personal relationship with that response community, he and a team of about 3-5 others volunteered their technical skills to be made of use by the incident command. With regard to their contribution: he states: “Mapping personnel … allow[ed] certain members of the incident command team to have better situational awareness, and to allow fire investigators and search teams to have a more accurate picture of the scene prior to deployment.” Being able to tap these highly technical volunteers, he laments, is not a part of the localities Standard Operating Procedures–”but it could be.

They learned many lessons in employing these volunteers, I’ll just highlight a few

  • 5.1 Know and understand who is in your community with highly technical skills that you might be able to call on during a response. The San Bruno response personnel only knew of these folks through “tenuous” connections. When the call went out for others to volunteer it was done on a Friday night to office phones-well after people had left. These people indicated they have would helped if they would have received notification.
  • 5.2 At a minimum, know and understand how to contact these individuals and vise versa.  A private company with highly technically skilled employees (Cisco is mentioned) wanted to help, and even tried calling numerous times, but couldn’t get through; phones were tied up and they did not know how else to reach emergency personnel.
  • 5.3 Include these community technical resources in your planning and  exercise activities as well as in your Standard Operating Procedures. Trying to incorporate their services during the middle of a response effort is fair at best. If they cannot show up during normal business hours for exercises, but would be able to donate time during a response, find a way to simulate their contributions.

I’m afraid this posting could go on for 100 pages, but I find these to be some of the more salient lessons that have come out of, what seems to be “the year of social media”. Let me know which lessons I missed.

Citizen-gathered data: can we get past mistrust and forge partnerships?

Anne Rolfes, Director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, is the guest blogger today. Her organization gathered data from citizens regarding their observations during the BP Oil Spill and then plotted that information on the interactive Ushahidi mapping platform. She is responding to the earlier posting on this blog, “Did Crowdsourcing Work for the BP Spill: One Local Official Says No“,  in which one local official involved in the response called the data unreliable.

I would like to make one observation before you read about her frustrations. The military has a saying: You fight like you train. Improvising during the heat of battle is not the norm, nor is it recommended. In fact, I have heard first-hand accounts of military units receiving new, unrequested technology in the field and being completely resistant to its deployment. (This does contrast, however, with their reaction to technology that they actually requested.) Why? Not only had they not received training (expect on-site), but the technology hadn’t been integrated into their “common operating picture.” Even though there were tangible, demonstrated benefits, it still went against their institutional culture to try to execute its deployment. Therefore, it should be understood that it is difficult at best to institute new technologies and practices during the execution phase of a disaster. In order for any new technology to be accepted, it should be deployed during the planning, training and exercise phases, and in that order.  In her piece, Ms Rolfes comments on broader problems of mistrust, however, which are somewhat separate issues.

Guest Post by: Anne Rolfes, Louisana Bucket Brigade, Oil Spill Crisis Map

In the early days of the BP oil spill I kept my cell phone handy, watching for return calls from essential partners in the crisis. Chief among those numbers were government contacts – the Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and technology officers from various branches of the bureaucracy. We were launching the region’s first Crisis Map. After a decade of experience responding to oil spill disasters, we had something to offer the government response community. We wanted to partner on the map, help the government collect information from citizens that could guide the response. Despite preliminary conversations with a variety of agencies who voiced interest, no calls for partnership came from the government. 

Government officials seem to have viewed the map. That’s what we hear, informally, from some workers on the ground.  The best example of high level engagement is EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. She posted her excitement about Ushahidi on her Facebook page. But these views appear to have been skin deep, with no serious engagement of the technology and how it might work for government.

Part of the problem is an age old problem in disaster response: a crisis is no time to introduce a new tool. A good example is our experience here in Louisiana with oil refinery accidents. In early September of this year ExxonMobil’s Chalmette Refining dumped 19 tons of catalyst on the community in St. Bernard Parish. Despite outreach after the accident encouraging people to report on the Chemical Accidents Map, no reports were filed. When another accident happened in that same community on October 4th, however, two reports were filed on the map. Discussions with the woman who made one of the reports revealed that she had prior knowledge of the map. She did not learn about it in the midst of the crisis.

But the chaos of crisis is not the only explanation for government agencies’ failure to harness the power of the BP Crisis Map. An earlier post on this blog detailed a Florida response chief’s distrust of reports from ordinary citizens. And in Louisiana, communities adjacent to oil refineries and chemical plants have long experienced mistrust from the local emergency planning commissions. This distrust exists despite the fact that the residents are on the front line of the facilities’ explosions and fires.

St. Bernard Parish, where Chalmette Refining is located, is a good example. Two citizen groups monitor the local refineries, and were understandably alarmed when the refinery’s 19 ton catalyst spill took place. The Material Safety Data Sheet classified the catalyst as hazardous, and instructs that footwear that comes into contact with catalyst be decontaminated or even thrown away before re use.[i]

No such instruction was given to the local community. Images on TV showed children playing in the catalyst.

Instead, parish Fire Chief brushed off community concerns, acknowledging potential harm but ultimately taking no action – including emergency response procedures – to advise the community on how to proceed. “It looked like someone just took and dusted the neighborhood with confectioner’s sugar,” he [the chief] said.”[ii] The community has long been concerned about the Fire Chief’s false assurances of safety after serious refinery accidents. As of this writing, the Fire Chief has not responded to a phone call and two e-mails requesting a meeting to review emergency response procedures.

This story matters because it crystallizes the portrait that some branches of bureaucracy have of citizens: at best people who are tangential to an emergency, at worst unreliable characters not to be trusted. But in fact, as those who live closest to petrochemical accidents or the BP oil spill (or a hurricane or a tropical storm), community members are all too often the epicenter of emergencies. First responders and government agencies should take advantage of this position and see citizens as partners.

In this they could take a lesson from community policing which incorporates partnerships with communities. Another example is Crime Stoppers. The police department – also a government institution – is willing to accept a certain amount of unreliable noise in the reporting because it sees the value of the reports that actually lead to the arrest and capture of suspects.

Emergency responders, the Coast Guard and military – entities involved in disaster response – should adopt a similar attitude toward community information. It is something valuable to be used, not unreliable data to be discarded. In the case of our Oil Spill Crisis Map, 66% of our 2,872 reports have been verified. A woman with a chronic cough since the oil spill, oil in a fragile area, dispersant on beaches – all of this is information is news that responders can use. If only they will listen.


[i] Kirkham, Chris, Times Picayune, September 7, 2010, “Louisiana DEQ Investigating Release of White Powder,” http://www.nola.com/news/index.ssf/2010/09/louisiana_deq_investigating_re.html

[ii] Sparacello, Mary, Times Picayune, September 6, 2010.

Did Crowdsourcing work for the BP Oil Spill? One local official says “no”.

Image representing Ushahidi as depicted in Cru...

Image via CrunchBase

Post by: Kim Stephens

Last week I found an article on another blog, Emergency Management , about Santa Rose county in Florida that used the off-the-shelf mobile software called”Xora” to track the oil spill. Xora’s publicity explains how it works:

“… the Emergency Management team members go out on water patrol boats to scout for oil spill product or boom problems. When product is found, the team member photographs them and then fills out a form on a mobile phone, noting the type of product. The photo is attached to the mobile form, and both are submitted from the phone directly back to the EOC for follow-up. Xora automatically captures the product’s GPS coordinates for documenting precise location, thus giving the EOC real time reporting and pictures. The EOC can then decide how and when to respond based upon the type of products found and what resources are needed to respond to the situation. The pictures could easily be forwarded to other operational command areas to dispatch the appropri- ate equipment.”

This reminded me of the deployment of Ushahidi software for the Oil Spill Crisis Map, which is a visual representation of reports of oil and its effects.  One of the key differences between the technologies is that instead of only responders reporting oil, citizens are allowed and encouraged to contribute: “This map visualizes reports of the effects of the BP oil spill submitted via text message, email, twitter and the web. Reports of oil sightings, affected animals, odors, health effects and human factor impacts made by the eyewitnesses and the media populate points on a this public, interactive, web based map. The information will be used to provide data about the impacts of the spill in real time as well as document the story of those that witness it.”

I was interested in whether or not Santa Rosa county  integrated any of the information found in the Oil Spill Crisis Map into their GIS system, or even if any of the data in the Crisis Map was being used to deploy emergency response personnel to verify or follow up on the information. I contacted a Daniel Hahn in their emergency management office, here is his reply:

“We are not integrating any of our information into ushahadi, a site I have recently become aware of and looked into. We were using Xora so as to be able to photograph and pinpoint potential oil threats to our inland waterways. It was also used to show the condition of deployed boom and confirm or refute the presence of response vessels. One problem I see with ushahadi in its current form is that it appears that  anyone can post anything, and as we soon learned during Deepwater Horizon, EVERYONE had oil in their backyards, or saw it in the bay, when in reality it was something else entirely (Sargassum, June grass etc…).

I too have been very interested in the use of social media as an emergency management tool, and the recent Red Cross study gave me hope that we as an EM community might keep up with technology and societal norms. I think controlled mediums where information is put out by EM is the best form of social media. In this way EM can have followers, and control over what is put on the site (i.e., the ability to delete incorrect of erroneous information). I do not see this ability with ushahadi. Ushahadi is good for what it was created for, which if I am correct is capturing and reporting human rights abuses. As an example I pulled up Santa Rosa on Ushahadi and saw where someone had posted oil washing up on Baldwin County beaches, when Baldwin County is in Alabama, not Florida. An organization called surfriders posted they were doing dispersant testing off shore. Who are they and what are their qualifications (rhetorical question)?” Daniel Hahn, Santa Rosa County, Florida.

This official clearly is interested in social media but doesn’t necessarily trust the public to provide valuable or reliable information. I think it would be interesting to see if any emergency response organizations along the Gulf Coast utilized this tool.  Hopefully, the map was able to provide a way the citizens of the Gulf to testify, which is what Ushahidi means, what they saw and the impacts that they felt. However, a more in depth analysis will be needed in order to determine whether or not the Oil Spill Crisis Map had any impact on the response effort.