A week ago today, Hurricane Sandy slammed into the East Coast, leaving in its wake an unprecedented path of destruction from Florida to Maine. What is noteworthy about this disaster, along with the thousands of people left homeless, the billions of dollars of damage, and the pain and loss of countless innocent victims, is the crucial role played by social media.
For those who had working phones and computers, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media outlets were the primary way they communicated. It’s how they found out when the storm hit certain areas, how bad the damage was, where food and supplies were being distributed, which banks/stores/buildings/bars were open with light and heat and electricity, power sources where they could charge their cell phones and computers, which gas stations had gas and how long the lines were.
For those of us, like me, who were observers than rather than victims of the storm, social media was also a crucial way to connect with relatives in the storm’s path, organize housing for those displayed, check out the Red Cross Facebook page to learn how to help victims, find out how to volunteer, and get the real story on which neighborhoods still need help because the government hasn’t gotten to them yet.
Jen Reeves was one person using social media to help victims of Sandy. During her first week on the job as AARP’s new social media trainer, the giant storm hit. She writes in an AARP blog, “The one thing I found remarkable about social media in a crisis is how helpful and challenging it can be at the same time. If the Red Cross did not have a team of people listening to the online conversations, locations in need could have been missed. And there are SO many portions of the East Coast in need. I may not be a Red Cross volunteer who can travel to help, but I feel like I was able to make a difference from behind a computer screen. There are so many emotions running high during this difficult time.”
On a discouraging note, Jen also noticed how many people were sharing incorrect information on social media and wrote a post warning readers not to believe everything they see. Her tip: “Stop for a moment before you hit share, retweet or reblog. If you cannot find information on an image or fact you want to share, I suggest passing it over and share something you created instead.”
Social media also played a major role in organizing hundreds of would-be NYC marathoners who wanted to help Hurricane Sandy victims on Staten Island. Thanks to the Facebook page New York Runners in Support of Staten Island, created by sports medicine doctor and runner Dr. Jordan Metzl, and the hashtag #SupportStatenIsland, volunteers took supplies to the hardest-hit areas of Staten Island, with many of them pitching in to clean up homes and neighborhoods. The Facebook page now has more than 5,400 likes, and video, images, reports and tweets from the effort were posted throughout the day.
Last night (Sunday), at the close of what would have been the day of the 42nd New York City Marathon, Dr. Metzl posted, “Runners and walkers and everyone who collected, packed, showed up in orange, stayed cheerful/flexible/focused, hit the ground with heavy backpacks and targeted areas and people that needed it most: You not only dropped off supplies, but you really rolled up your sleeves to help the community.”
Steve Mackel, a volunteer with the group, produced this YouTube video about the experience.
Social media is also helping Hurricane Sandy victims reunite with their lost pets that disappeared during the storm. Distraught pet owners are posting pictures of their missing animals in hopes that they can be located on Facebook, reaching a much wider audience than the old-style method of taping flyers on telephone poles around town.
One benchmark of social media’s ability to affect the social good: Facebook pages Hurricane Sandy Lost and Found Pets and Hurricane Sandy Lost Dogs, with 22,000 likes between them, have successfully reunited many pets with their owners.
Andrea Simon, Principal and Founder of Simon Associates Management Associates (SAMC), offers this insight on the power of social media during Hurricane Sandy: “I was stranded in Florida after flying down before Sandy on a business trip. Seemed like a great place to weather the storm. Good thing I could follow along on Facebook and Twitter because you would have thought that my husband, taking care of the house without any power, and my friends, taking care of my husband, were just doing fine without me, which they were.”
In today’s world, as Hurricane Sandy devastatingly showed us, social media is much more than an outlet for idle chatting. For millions – no, billions – it is now an indispensable lifeline.