Of Hurricanes and Hashtags: Disaster Relief in the Social-Media Age

Adam Mazmanian

Just hours after a tornado devastated parts of Joplin, Mo., in the late afternoon of May 22, 2011, the mother-daughter team of Rebecca and Genevieve Williams of the nearby town of Neosho went to work on a Facebook page. By midnight, Joplin Tornado Info had received 25,000 "likes." Within 48 hours, 49,000 people had "liked" the page.

In the days that followed, the page became a clearinghouse for information on recovery, how to volunteer, where to donate supplies, media updates, and requests for information about loved ones. Eventually, administrator privileges were extended to 30 volunteers, including public-information officials at the local gas, electric, and water utilities. It was one big piece of a spontaneous eruption of social media that helped those survivors who relied on their smartphones for access to information.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency did not play a meaningful role in this effort, according to the Williamses. “They were a little bit reluctant,” Genevieve told National Journal, taking a diplomatic tone. “I think it’s a scary, brave new world for them.” Her mother was blunter. “They chose not to work with us,” Rebecca said.

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate was not surprised to hear this. “That’s probably true,” he said in an interview. “Trying to change cultures in any organization is a challenge. We’re getting better.”

If the House version of the bill appropriating FEMA’s budget for 2013 becomes law, Fugate will have to show that the agency has a plan for deploying social media. A provision requires FEMA to improve its ability to collect data in real time through social-media monitoring and messaging and directs the agency to produce a report on the utility of social media in disaster response.

Fugate, who writes his own tweets at @CraigatFEMA, said that social media indirectly alerted the agency to the severity of the Joplin tornadoes. The Weather Channel broadcast pictures that had been posted on Facebook and Twitter that showed some of the devastation, including the leveling of St. John’s Hospital.

“That was the first really good information that I was able to see that really started to quantify how bad this was, well before any official reports or requests for assistance came through,” he said. Social media has the potential to provide information to influence FEMA's decision to mobilize in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, he said.

With hurricane season now officially started, FEMA’s guidance to residents in the path of a storm is still to get news from established media channels like broadcast radio and television. But FEMA itself will look to the data stream generated by social-media posts, especially on Twitter, to glean news from the ground. 

“We’re looking at things that people are hashtagging,” Fugate said. “Hashtags that contain the name of a storm -- we map it just to see where the tweets are coming from.” Fugate cautions, however, that the @FEMA Twitter handle isn't “a 911 system where we can respond.”

The agency is using established social-media channels, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, to push out information, but it still faces challenges in interacting with independent social-media users in a disaster. “Traditionally, public information officers have a comfort level with specific credentialed news outlets,” Fugate said. FEMA must still convince longtime professionals to expand their view of media relations to include social media.

Or, as Rebecca Williams put it, “We’re these two ladies with this Facebook page and I’m sure they didn’t have time to investigate what we were doing or who we were.”

Rebecca and Genevieve Williams recently compiled their experiences into a guide for would-be social media-responders, called “The Use of Social Media for Disaster Recovery.” Fugate expressed support for these sorts of grassroots efforts -- and their report just earned a link on FEMA's website. But he is leery of the prospect of establishing guidelines for the deployment of social media in disaster recovery.

“In government, we’re infamous for wanting to standardize and template and format to make it easy. But that’s not how we’re seeing social media. The public defines how they’re going to use it,” he says. “Could you imagine if we’d put our marker down four years ago on Myspace now that Facebook is dominating that area?”

Asked if he might consider tasking FEMA regional information officers with posting directly to Facebook pages that bubble up spontaneously in the aftermath of a disaster, Fugate said, “I’ll be optimistic -- I’ll be disappointed if we don’t do that, but I won’t be so bold as to say it is universal yet. “