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Aug 28 2015

Ten Years of Social Media: What I’ve Learned Since Katrina

By Sara Estes Cohen

Topics: PreparednessRecoveryResilienceResponseSocial Media

This week, we celebrate the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Since the storm, advances in technology, the proliferation of mobile technology, and the rise in popularity of social media have overwhelmingly changed how we, both the public and the public safety community, communicate, interact, seek, and exchange information with each other. These advances have created tremendous opportunities to improve disaster preparedness, response, and recovery in communications, operations, and decision-making.

I’ve heard a few comments in the last couple of years about “the lack of social media as part of the response after Katrina.” How quickly we forget – social media was not as prolific then as it is today. Had it been, imagine what we could have done in the days and weeks following the storm. As we move forward, it is essential that we, both the public and the public safety community, remember these lessons, striving to harness existing tools and capabilities, while guiding future development to ensure that we are able to progress at the same rate as technological advancement, and ultimately, better serve the public. 

I experienced the storm as a member of the public, on my own, without understanding of what could have or should have happened.  This fact, coupled with now almost ten years of experience working in emergency management along side the very same people who spent days and months in the Gulf Coast in response to and recovery from the storm and floods, provides me with a very unique perspective on the changes that have happened since 2005.

Throughout the storm, I did not go to Twitter to share my every thought, activity, action, or question. I did not go to Myspace or Facebook to ask my friends for their input, complain about not being able to complete a phone call or change a flight. Today, I only have a handful of photos because my cell phone was equipped with a less-than-useful camera. Sometimes texts went through, but we didn’t really use those either. After the storm, I spent hours searching for blogs where people were posting their location, and then reading through pages of lists of names to find ones I recognized.  There was no People Finder – no Facebook Safety Check, no way to post to your network with an #IMOK hashtag. There was only Myspace (and Facebook - but only if you were a college student), so I posted there, connecting with a few I could find, and trying to reconnect with my friends from home.

In 2005, only 8% of online adults used social media. This number increased to 47% in 2009 as the H1N1 panic ensued. In 2010, that number jumped to 67%, and 74% by the time the Boston Marathon Bombing occurred in April of 2013.  As it became easier to access the Internet, social media became, more and more, the online destination of the modern mobile world.  Because of this, we are now able to experience disasters first-hand and in near real-time.

Through the eyes and ears of those on the ground, we live through each hurricane, earthquake, tsunami, wildfire, school shooting, protest and revolution. We feel the fear, the loss, and the hope of those on the ground, through text, photo, and video. Armed with this information, with each disaster, the community becomes more a part of the response. Social media connects those in need with those who want to help - a global community of neighbors, despite geographic location. With each major disaster since Katrina, access, use, and capabilities of mobile and social media have advanced exponentially. Over the last decade, social media has become:

  • A replacement for official channels as a critical information source in emergencies: In 2007, the Virginia Tech shooting illustrated a need for organized use of social media to enhance university response to emergencies on campus. In the absence of the official website (the website crashed due to overwhelming traffic), students, parents, the media, and concerned public turned to social media, posting and sharing information to and from text messages, instant messengers, blogs, and social networking sites.
  • A means for global collaboration, assistance, and ground-level situational awareness: Following the Haiti earthquake in 2009, crisis mapping exploded as a way to quickly establish situational awareness in unknown circumstances, leveraging the power of the global community to relay and translate information to, from, and within Haiti. It also introduced crowd-sourced mapping as a tool that can help responders make better decisions during a crisis.
  • An essential part of the official crisis communications tool-kit: In the H1N1 scare, we saw public health agencies turn to social media to share information with multiple partners, channels, and demographics, and to online analytics to better understand the penetration of the disease across the world (or at least, the fear of possible infection across the globe as people searched online for a variety of influenza-related keywords).
  • A method for community organizing and resource sharing in response and recovery: After the Oklahoma and Alabama tornados in 2011, relief agencies and non-profits turned to Facebook to organize, call for assistance, and provide information and resources to and from the community. Also in 2011, Hurricane Irene illustrated the first time we saw both the public and official response organizations turn to social media to communicate throughout the storm. It was also the first time we saw the integration of digital volunteers within the official response (Red Cross Digital Volunteers), the solicitation of input from the public by government agencies (FEMA Disaster Reporter App), and the aggregation of information from social media to produce consolidated layers of vetted information that could be mapped for better understanding.
  • An alternative resource in establishing situational awareness: After the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, car companies leveraged GPS to map the location of cars to decipher which roads had been damaged; crisis mapping helped to provide situational awareness and issues from the ground, and organizations turned to social media to raise funds, allocate resources, organize support, and more. In 2011, the Virginia earthquake demonstrated how quickly information could spread on social media - individuals in New York City read about the earthquake via Twitter before they felt the ground shaking.
  • An official information and engagement channel: In 2012, Hurricane Sandy marked a shift in the use of social media. More than ever before, government agencies turned to mobile and online technologies before, during, and after the storm, to communicate with response partners and the public in order to share information, maintain awareness of community actions and needs, and more. Additionally – recovery from Hurricane Sandy demonstrated how sharing economy platforms such as AirBnb can be leveraged to empower the community to engage in their own response, enhancing official recovery efforts with much needed resources. 

Today it is essential that we maintain a broad perspective – addressing both the needs of the public along with the needs of the public safety community. Only then can we develop robust and all-encompassing solutions. My personal experience, coupled with the work I’ve done over the last ten years, helps me to understand where these connection points may lie. Despite significant changes in policies, technology, and process since 2005, considerable research, development, implementation, and evaluation are still necessary. Furthermore, we must better integrate our efforts with those outside of the disaster space. It is only then can we achieve true resilience – empowering the community to participate in their own preparedness, response, and recovery, and, in turn, arming the public safety community with the tools they need as well.

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