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Social Networking and Recovery From the Great Hurricane of 2009

06/20/2009

The morning after was like waking up from Katrina all over again. Most structures  were reduced to pieces in the aftermath of the Category 4 hurricane, which gave only three days warning as to its intended path. Hundreds of thousands of residents were displaced, and many were missing. Drinking water was scarce, and food supplies were interrupted. Residents knew it would be months before any sense of normalcy could even be envisioned.

FEMA was responding as quickly as it could, but the enormity of the logistical and bureaucratic task slowed meaningful aid for days.  America was mobilizing, once again, in the wake of a great natural disaster.

But this time it was entirely different.

Immediately after the full extent of the cyclonic nightmare was realized, high energy groups of organizers worked on Twitter to organize hurricane relief, item-by-item and project-by-project. Contacts with local governmental officials were made and innovative coordination soon followed. Those ready to help energetically focused on re-building houses. Others concentrated on sending food.

After a severe ice storm in 2008, social media made a difference.

Still more collected clothing for immediate distribution. There were efforts to re-open critical businesses, like super markets. Spontaneous groups from around the United States, indeed the world, organized with government officials in a matter of hours to designate drop off points, arrange for transportation of supplies and goods, and worked to collect needed funds for the Red Cross and other organizations that were ready to intercede on the front lines of recovery.

Suddenly, in the curious language of Twitter, “#hurricane” became the most vital collection of letters on the internet.

Live steaming video channels were developed, in a matter of minutes, on UStream.tv and JustIn.tv, devoted to serving as responsible voices to assist in information flow, including  search and recovery efforts. The shows were staffed by volunteers who took their tasks very seriously… and web sites were used to supplement the live video effort and post missing person, volunteer and rebuilding information by providing detailed information, victim by victim, of what was needed to recover.  Twitter also linked to those sites, and spread the word with its informative 140 character efficiency.

Teams of ordinary citizens, with the sole mission of digitally imaging and documenting where and how assistance was needed, entered the widely affected geographical region and teamed with private Internet service providers to help build electronic data bases of crippled municipalities and their needs. At the same time, cell towers were being repaired and mobile cell installations were being transported to reconnect the region. Google, Ask.com, Yahoo and Bling set up special pages linking to all the emergency recovery information there was to read.

Special web broadcast mapping software tracked the progress of relief efforts, and showed, on a daily basis, that some areas were not getting the aid they needed. Updated maps, based upon real-time and analytical analysis (courtesy Google Analytics and ArcView)  showing damaged utilities, the approximate number of homes and apartments destroyed, and the number of people reporting medical emergencies were developed. They were updated daily to accurately pinpoint the sections of towns with the most need. In response, social networking groups were able to launch aid efforts block by block, like never before. Health care was delivered more efficiently as mobile clinics knew where to go as disease outbreaks appeared, and roads were cleared earlier to enable them to get there. Through these combined efforts, this sped up aid to the lesser known areas of need. 

Groups devoted to housing hurricane weary individuals mobilized better, in part, due to the fastest information gathering campaign in natural disaster history.

As cellular service started to pick up in ground zero, mobile texting and cellular video reports about the recovery were posted on line. Fresh from the Iran uprising of June and earlier events in Africa, technology helped filter the reliability of the never-ending crisis data.

General Motors OnStar and other “connected vehicle communication services” were used to wirelessly link from the impacted areas and helped serve as unintended reporters of conditions for governmental and civilian recovery efforts.

Emergency Management officials posted their printed and published needs on Scribd in a special group devoted to hurricane recovery, and updated them.

Facebook, Twitter and Flickr groups linked hurricane relief videos and channels to You Tube, Current TV, AOL, andVimeo.  I-Reporters were everywhere for CNNTranslation for international blog readers was provided by GlobalVoicesOnline.org and GoogleNewsvine and Reuters AlertNet.org did their part and updated foreign audiences about the need for help.

Groups such as AllForGood.org registered volunteers by the thousands, with a speed that was previously unimaginable, aided by all the post disaster social media outlets.

The White House, using its website, offered information from Washington, and FEMA instantly became partnered with responsible citizen disaster information services in its efforts to avoid the mistakes of Katrina and enhance the recovery.

Bloggers on WordPress and other services reported not only the needs of the hurricane target area, but what their local groups were doing, and updated them sometimes more than once a day. Even the Governors and Attorney Generals of the affected states opened up live video channels to broadcast important legal information about price gouging and state relief efforts on the net. 

It was true.  The nation was “networked leveraged” for recovery.

No longer was it necessary for local print newspapers to take days to plead for help once the printing presses were put back together. This time voices and cries for help were heard instantly and the response was profound.  The varied electronic efforts comprised a spontaneous collection of good will initiatives that alerted the world to the vast devastation. Just as in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, private industry and non-governmental organizations stepped in to push relief to meaningful and expedited levels. Satellite transmissions to and from the affected region were set up while land lines were just beginning to be restored. Combined with private telecommunications efforts, contact with “dead zones” was soon made. Soon the electronic effort covered all regions, not just those outside the Hurricane’s target. 

As the efforts continued, web conferences between individuals and groups were set up on Go-To-Meeting and Acrobat Connect to further coordinate relief delivery efforts. Internet radio stations broadcast on Pandora and other broadcast protals which were devoted to recovery efforts sprang up and helped with the increasing information flow and emergency fund raising.

Soon, because of all the interconnected Internet activities, the missing were located, and the efforts to replant the displaced were excelled because of the innovative role of disaster relief social networking. 

Internet collaboration after Katrina produced housing alternatives.

Six months following the start of the efforts, FEMA held summit of the Internet relief organizations, and a review was done to see what was learned. The conclusion: The new media, through its crowd sourcing capabilities, helped America recover much faster, and in ways no one thought were possible just a few years prior.

Yes, in 2009, social media gave a whole new name to disaster relief and recovery. In 2010 and the years that followed, special cell phone sensors helped track geographical areas for recovery data immediately before and after hurricanes by monitoring weather conditions and population flow. (See the Economist article, “Sensors and sensitivity” in the June 6, 2009 edition).  The effort was not limited to the United States, but was used in the Philippines, Latin America and the Far East.  In the years since, technological innovations continued to provide even greater tools…

At the dawn of the internet…we had no idea how useful it would become in times of devastation or how we could leverage it to recover from Mother Nature.

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