Social Media and Disaster Response

With National Disaster Preparedness Week in our rearview mirror, the way in which social media has so drastically changed how we obtain and process information has been top of mind. In the event of a natural disaster, social media allows people to directly reach out to community leaders and decision makers and oftentimes, actually receive a response. Several recent events illustrate the public’s increasing ability to be heard when it really matters.

Snowmageddon 2013

In February the Kansas City area experienced two major snowstorms within a week of each other. The second storm—for which we all thought we were more prepared—caused thousands of power outages across the metro. By way of smartphones, tablets, Facebook and Twitter, people connected to representatives from the region’s primary electric utilities, Kansas City Power & Light and Westar Energy, in order to find out what was going on and when they’d have power again.

Residents also were connected to city officials throughout the snowstorms. When prompted, municipal leaders such as the KCMO City Manager kept people in the loop by providing Twitter updates including which side of the street residents should park on to allow room for snowplows to get through, when trash would be picked up, and when residents in certain neighborhoods could expect their street to be cleared of snow. During the second storm, the city manager even provided directions to community centers where residents without power could go while the electric companies scurried to repair the damage causing the outages.

2008 Sichuan Earthquake

On the international level, one of the first natural disasters to shed light on the power of social media occurred on May 12, 2008, when a devastating 7.9-magnitude earthquake hit China’s Sichuan province, killing more than 60,000 people. Social media allowed people to report on the earthquake as it was happening — residents were sending text messages, tweeting about it, and sharing videos of shaking buildings. In fact, the BBC was the first outlet to report on the earthquake. It caught wind of it on Twitter and broke the story several minutes before the U.S. Geological Survey had the news up on its website. The last time China experienced an earthquake of this magnitude, it took Chinese officials three months to admit that it had even happened. This time regular citizens beat them to the punch.

Following the quake, a citizen journalist in the Sichuan province began proposing on social media channels that the reason so many school buildings had collapsed during the earthquake was because corrupt officials had taken bribes to allow those buildings to be built to less than code. This consumer-generated content ended up becoming an international story, with The New York Times running a front-page story accompanied by a powerful photo in which a local official is shown kneeling in the street, pleading with protesting parents of the victims to abandon their demonstration.

The growth of social media’s predominance in modern culture has shifted the paradigm from what used to be a one-way presentation of information by media to consumers, to a landscape in which consumers have the tools necessary to initiate an exchange with decision makers and organize around a common cause. On the whole, widespread access to social media has helped remove barriers, giving consumers access to critical information and the power to contribute to an increasingly transparent, responsive and collaborative media environment.