Post by: Kim Stephens
As Hurricane Irene made her way up the coast I prepared my own family for the potential impact and anxiously monitored social media traffic with an eye towards how it was being utilized by citizens, government agencies and volunteer organizations. Unfortunately, we lost power on Saturday night (see above pic) and did not get service back until late Tuesday. This, however, did provide me the opportunity to view social media content using the one communication devise I had left: my smartphone.
Patrice Cloutier will be leading a team which will conduct a more comprehensive after action review, and I’m hoping to contribute to that effort; but for now, these are a few personal observations. I apologize in advance to my local and state EMA for what might be perceived as being hyper-critical of their efforts. I do appreciate that we are all learning how to operate in this very new medium.
1. Be leerily of hot button issues when retweeting. A disaster, like a surgeon’s knife, can rip holes in a community, figuratively and literally exposing existing problems under the surface. Social media reveals these issues to the world. I discovered this when I retweeted a plea to help to take in animals from a shelter in North Carolina. The alarming tweet stated: “All of the animals will be ‘euthanized immediately’. The pics of the puppies made me do it.
After digging into the issue a little deeper, however, I found that the local government was also using social media to counter this claim with a “Rumor Control” message on their own Facebook page. They stated “This is NOT true. Our shelter is located very close to the Tar River, and a significant storm may cuase some flooding….therefore we may need to transport the animals…to other local shelters.” The comments, however, tell the real story. The facility does euthanize animals after they have been deemed un-adoptable, and people with a concern for animal rights used the event to highlight this issue. For my part, I simply tweeted the local government’s position and left it at that.
2. Understand how people access information. Once citizens loose power they more than likely have slow or no access to the internet. The cell towers in my community had no issues during the storm, but I live in an area that gets poor reception without an electric-powered repeater in my home. Although I only had 1 measly bar on my smartphone, I was still able to see a slow creeping tweeter feed. I found it frustrating, however, when government agencies sent out content that required me to visit a website. This tweet is a case-in-point. “County to distribute MRE’s tomorrow to families without power.” Which county? What’s the address of the point of distribution? Who’s eligible? All of these items could have been included in a tweet or two, but requiring the user to go to a website (normally a good practice) ensured that people in most need of the information were the most likely not to see it.
3. Keep track of comments and remove those that violate your decency policy. People can be ugly–that’s a fact, but don’t let them mar your social media presence–delete inappropriate content and do so quickly!
4. Repeat valid, important content from other organizations. From my perspective it seemed that local and state government EMAs did a pretty good job distributing information regarding their own activities (e.g. road closure, pics of people working hard in the EOC) but failed to retweet or even repeat information from other entities. For example, my local EMA never once tweeted that schools had cancelled classes.
Furthermore, EMAs should find out what organizations in their community are also using social media, before a crisis, and create a “community twitter list”. This list would not only help them keep track of those organization’s efforts, but would be a great resource for community members as well. EMAs should also use their own twitter or facebook feeds to amplify volunteer efforts and government information, e.g. ‘Follow @ourlocalredcross’ for information on their activities during the storm”–a virtual JIC, if you will. Also, as an aside, remind people how to fast- follow you so that they receive your content as a text message.
5. Reverse 911 does not work for a large segment of the community when the power is out. Power outages left communities, not only without lights, but without phone service as well, especially for those of us using cable- based phone service. Our community relies very heavily on reverse 911 for both school and emergency information. This service, however, was only able to reach people with traditional land-lines. News spread quickly, nonetheless– via texting. Our teens knew school was cancelled by receiving texts from friends almost as soon as it was announced. But relying on important information to be distributed via word-of-mouth is really not a good contingency plan.
I look forward to really analyzing more information about social media’s use during this event–which continues to unfold in Vermont even as we write our after actions. Even though it wasn’t as big of a disaster as expected (for some), it can serve as a great learning opportunity: MSELs compliments of mother-nature.