After disasters, social media struggles to keep up with expectations

Tina Nguyen Contributor
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For Stacy Elmer, a Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary of Preparedness and Response at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the power of social media in the aftermath of natural disasters became clear in Joplin, MO earlier this year.

The tornadoes that had devastated the town, she recalls, also scattered 1,100 hospital employees into the unknown.   Unable to track down any of the workers, a hospital administrator tasked one woman — who had little more than a Facebook account — with finding as many employees as she could using social media.

A few days later, all 1,100 had been located through the Internet.

“It just drove home the power of social media, and the fact that this is something that’s here to stay,” said Elmer, recounting this epiphany during Wednesday’s Facebook “DCLive” event on social media in disaster preparedness.  “It’s something that, for emergency management and emergency response, we have to engage in.”

The one-two punch of an earthquake Tuesday and a hurricane in the next 48 hours made the event, with representatives from the American Red Cross and the National Weather Service, all the more relevant.

At the heart of the discussion was a study the Red Cross released on Tuesday.  Its key findings highlighted the growing acceptance of social media as a means of communication during emergencies and disasters: Six out of ten people relied on online news for updates during these events. And one-third of the U.S. population said would use social media to let their loved ones know they were safe.

The study also presented a crisp picture of an American public unsure of the federal government’s ability to use social media in these scenarios. Though one-third of respondents expected local rescuers to respond within an hour of their posting a request for help online, nearly half of those surveyed — and two-thirds of online respondents — doubted that rescuers even monitored the online environment.

For government agencies and nonprofit organizations, then, the user-driven capacities of social media could potentially be a powerful tool — if they could harness it. “If [social media] is constantly changing and constantly moving,” Elmer asked, “how do we stay ahead of the game, instead of always being behind it?”

Moderated by Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes, the event provided a macro-level overview of how the government and nonprofit organizations could respond, and adapt, to a public using social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter as tools for coordinating before and after disasters.

It’s possible to use social media to respond to natural disasters and events, as Newark Mayor Cory Booker illustrated last December during the “Snowpocalypse.”  An avid Twitterer, Booker gained national attention for trudging into the snow with his staffers in response to tweet requests from his constituents, digging their cars and buses out of snowbanks and clearing driveways.  Still, Booker and his staff serve a city of 300,000 people –a far cry from the tens of millions who will be hit by this weekend’s hurricane.

So far a federally-backed, social media-driven response strategy remains unclear, beyond the obvious function of harnessing it to locate missing people.

Part of the challenge lies in the nature of social media itself: As a self-generated means of communication, social media is an excellent resource for real-time information on disasters. But the sheer volume of news and events created immediately after an event poses a huge challenge for emergency responders trying to monitor theaftermath.

Trevor Riggen, Director of Mass Care at the American Red Cross, pointed out that resource-limited rescue organizations inevitably must triage these requests by prioritizing them between “wants” versus “needs”.

“If one message pops up on our screen, saying ‘I need a hot meal,’ is that enough to divert resources to that community?” he asked rhetorically. “Or do we look for an aggregate of need before we start doing that?”

The real strength of social media, it seems, lies in preparation for these events; by early Friday Facebook’s government-related pages were filled with hurricane-related warnings and information, including evacuation notices, weather updates and lists of resources.


Links to were scattered all over Facebook users’ walls, alerting their online friends to prepare in advance for power outages.  Facebook even promoted a live statement from President Barack Obama urging Americans to prepare for the landfall of Hurricane Irene.

Anticipating these events, Elmer announced that HHS had launched a contest for app developers called “Lifeline.” Its goal is the development of a social media-driven emergency beacon. With this app, HHS hopes to use the text-based power of social connectivity to let people know their status during and after emergencies, in a way that wouldn’t congest cellular networks the way Wednesday’s earthquake did.

Butrelying on social networks to respond to events and emergencies is less clear-cut. “Tracking [these things] is an enormous challenge,” admitted Riggen, who acknowledged that the instantaneous nature of social media had built up enormous expectations for a speedy government response.

“Meeting that expectation of one hour is difficult right now.”

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