When Hurricane Katrina ravaged the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005, Facebook was the new kid on the block. There was no Twitter for news updates, and the iPhone was not yet on the scene. By the time Hurricane Sandy slammed the eastern seaboard last year, social media had become an integral part of disaster response, filling the void in areas where cell phone service was lost while millions of Americans looked to resources including Twitter and Facebook to keep informed, locate loved ones, notify authorities and express support. Gone are the days of one-way communication where only official sources provide bulletins on disaster news.
Researchers have now started publishing data on the use of social media in disasters, and lawmakers and security experts have begun to assess how emergency management can best adapt. “The convergence of social networks and mobile has thrown the old response playbook out the window,” Michael Beckerman, president and CEO of the Internet Association, told the House Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications on June 4.
The new playbook will not do away with the emergency broadcast system and other government efforts. Rather, it will incorporate new data from researchers, federal agencies and nonprofits that have begun to reveal the exact penetration of social media in disasters.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) wrote in its 2013 National Preparedness report last week that during and immediately following Hurricane Sandy, “users sent more than 20 million Sandy-related Twitter posts, or “tweets,” despite the loss of cell phone service during the peak of the storm.” New Jersey’s largest utility company, PSE&G, said at the subcommittee hearing that during Sandy they staffed up their Twitter feeds and used them to send word about the daily locations of their giant tents and generators. “At one point during the storm, we sent so many tweets to alert customers, we exceeded the [number] of tweets allowed per day,” PSE&G’S Jorge Cardenas, vice president of asset management and centralized services, told the subcommittee.
Following the Boston Marathon bombings, one quarter of Americans reportedly looked to Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites for information, according to The Pew Research Center. The sites also formed a key part of the information cycle: when the Boston Police Department posted its final “CAPTURED!!!” tweet of the manhunt, more than 140,000 people retweeted it. Community members via a simple Google document offered strangers lodging, food or a hot shower when roads and hotels were closed. Google also adapted its Person Finder from previous use with natural disasters.
Each disaster sparks its own complex web of fast-paced information exchange. That’s a good thing, says Mark Keim, associate director for science in the Office of Environmental Health Emergencies at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it can both improve disaster response and allow affected populations to take control of their situation as well as feel empowered.
Drawing up an effective social media strategy and tweaking it to fit an emergency, however, is a crucial part of preparedness planning, says disaster sociologist Jeannette Sutton, a senior research scientist at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs who studies social media in crises and disaster. For the Boston Marathon incident, she found no consistent hashtag on Twitter, which can make tracking relevant information difficult. Even searching for the word “Boston” may fall short, she says, because it could lead to unrelated matter like Boston tourism or fail to capture relevant tweets that did not include the word Boston.