Disaster in a connected society

A major hurricane, Gustav, is expected to hit land in the Gulf Coast this week. The Gustav Information Center is using Twitter to disseminate information about online resources to prepare for the hurricane and its expected aftermath.

This kind of networked support occurred spontaneously in 2005 with Katrina, when the IRC community monitored and transcribed radio communications to report on FEMA efforts before the media could. Using a wiki, this group provided the main source of information to victims and the rest of the world. Three years later, the tools have propagated and the willingness to make use of them has grown.

WeatherUnderground tracks Hurricane Gustav
Web 2.0 will help Americans deal with Hurricane Gustav

Emergency strategist David Stephenson singled out Twitter as an important tool to combat disaster:

Long-time readers may remember that I was originally pretty dismissive of Twitter back in the day, when it was used primarily for navel-gazing (”that was a great sandwich”). That was before more and more people began using it and learning how to compress critical, actionable info into 140-character “tweets.” In disasters such as the San Diego wildfires Twitter provided invaluable situational awareness (and, with the recent earthquakes in Virginia and California, there were “tweets” providing breaking information well before the wire services or official announcements came out!).

While Stephenson is too dismissive of the value of the less-critical content, he is correct about Twitter’s value in large-scale disasters. It is a proven channel, and emergency communication is probably the single best reason for people to join, particularly when you live in a location prone to fighting with nature.

Use Twitter to let family know you’re ok in disaster

It works the other way, too. Twitter is useful for connecting those not directly affected by hurricanes with future victims of disaster. In addition to GustavAlerts, the Science News Blog is sending hurricane information as tweets. Individuals—such as children’s storyteller Dianne de Las Casas of Harvey, Louisiana—are tweeting their evacuation from the area. Dianne reported an 11-hour trip to get to Mississippi. Reading about strangers experiencing such inconveniences is a way to empathize, a precursor to more active engagement.

(UPDATE: Dianne also blogged in more detail about “the largest evacuation in U.S. history” before she finally went to sleep.)

In his list of disaster tips for the modern age, Stephenson recommends:

  • Put your family’s medical records and other vital documents on a $10 thumb drive, attached to your keychain and encrypted.
  • Subscribe to feeds with real-time information on hurricanes.
  • Buy a solar charger for your laptop, in case you are without wired electricity.
  • If they offer local newscasts, subscribe to Sirius or XM satellite radio.
  • Make use of information available on other disaster content sites, such as KatrinaHelp, becoming involved in similar wiki projects when new emergencies strike. (The place to go is probably the Gustav wiki.)
  • Get family and friends to join location-based social networks, like Dodgeball.com (or BrightKite). In a crisis, one message may be all you can send, but it can be enough to get word to people in your network.
  • Make use of cameraphones and access to mashups that can help document immediate situations where help is needed.
  • Create “ICE” (In Case of Emergency) contacts on your cell phone containing important friends and family. First responders can call the ICE numbers in order until contact is made to get information that may save your life.

Stephenson also advocates for even more proactive and technical precautions, such as cultivating a community wireles with neighbors and joining Ham radio networks.

HurriCam: A Ustream video feed from Houma, Louisiana

One thing the current administration learned from the Katrina disaster three years ago is not to do things that undercut the seriousness of the event (i.e. play golf). Bush and Cheney are skipping the Republican National Convention to focus attentions on Gustav’s impact, something that may also be politically motivated to keep the unpopular leadership away from the McCain-Palin ticket. Should Gustav be as bad as projections indicate, then comparisons to Katrina will be inevitable. To ee how up-to-speed you are on the 2005 disaster, you can do one more Web 2.0 thing: Take a quiz.

7 thoughts on “Disaster in a connected society

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  2. Sarah Perez of Read/Write/Web posted a more comprehensive list of online resources, including more use of Twitter for coverage and reporting:

  3. Pingback: The Dads Center: Disaster in A Connected Society; Good content

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