Social Media and Disasters

This past week I experienced a 5.8 magnitude earthquake and Hurricane Irene. In both instances, I immediately went to Facebook and Twitter to see what was happening.

Twitter birdWith the earthquake, I discovered it was felt up and down the East Coast but that I was not far from the epicenter. I was able to quickly connect with friends who wanted to know if I was okay. I learned that there were no injuries but there was property damage at the center.

I’m not alone in finding information out about disasters through social media. According to two new surveys conducted by the American Red Cross, Americans are relying more and more on social media, mobile technology and online news outlets to learn about ongoing disasters, seek help and share information about their well-being after emergencies.

Facebook icon“Social media is becoming an integral part of disaster response,” says Wendy Harman, director of social strategy for the American Red Cross.

Key findings include:

  • Followed by television and local radio, the internet is the third most popular way for people to gather emergency information with 18 percent of both the general and the online population specifically using Facebook for that purpose.
  • Nearly a fourth (24 percent) of the general population and a third (31 percent) of the online population would use social media to let loved ones know they are safe.
  • Four of five (80 percent) of the general and 69 percent of the online populations surveyed believe that national emergency response organizations should regularly monitor social media sites in order to respond promptly.

In the aftermath of Tuesday’s earthquake the Federal Emergency Management Agency urged people to incorporate social media elements into their natural disaster and emergency-preparedness plans.

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate told reporters that Tuesday’s earthquake demonstrated an over-reliance on cell phones during an emergency.

Mobile networks were overburdened in the immediate aftermath of the quake as people tried to reach friends and family. Cell phone texting, however, remain unaffected and became a popular and reliable alternative.

When Disaster Strikes, Are You Listening?

The American Red Cross listens in the social media space. It has teams of people ready to be deployed when disaster strikes.

Wendy Harman talks about listening at NonProfit 2.0.

Its Social Media Manager Wendy Harman has conducted training so that staff knows how to be a subject matter expert. She’s even developed a social media handbook (and has said we can use it!).

Most of her social media posts are intended to make the organization’s mission more known. “We like to have fun nerdiness with our posts,” she told the NonProfit 2.0 audience recently.

But, of course, there is a serious side to her job. And that’s getting the word out about disaster efforts. At 4:53 p.m. on Jan. 12, Wendy and the Red Cross “put into practice everything we did before.”

That included Facebook updates and interviewing a subject matter expert on Haiti in front of a world map with a flip cam so they could post the video interview.

At the start of a crisis, the Red Cross may have limited information. “Even if we don’t know anything,” Wendy said, “we acknowledge that something is going on.”

Ironically, Wendy said that on Jan. 11, she was feeling frustrated about social media. “We weren’t moving the needle on people taking action.”

All that changed after the earthquake struck. By 9:38 p.m. on Jan. 12 the Red Cross had set up text mobile giving through the State Department. By the next morning, 3 million people had made donations via their phones.

“We just had to tweet about it one time,” Wendy said. The White House also tweeted once about the mobile giving option.

“The rest was the American public,” Wendy said. “We were seeing an unprecedented mobile giving phenomenon.”

From then on it was about keeping the information churning and the public information push in the social world, she said.

In the aftermath, Wendy said the biggest lesson learned was that social media wasn’t “just fun and games anymore.”

“We really can do something here,” she said.

She learned about a group trapped under a supermarket. “They could hear the rescue workers, but the workers couldn’t hear them. But they were tweeting,” Wendy said.

Despite efforts, the group later perished.

What will change for the Red Cross, Wendy said, is that “we’re going to let the public come in and tell us where we need to mobilize. In the past we relied heavily on disaster teams.”

Wendy said in the future, for her, social media is going to be about tearing down the wall and “being really informed, really becoming  a facilitator.”

It’s her goal, and it’s a worthy one.