Five Lessons From Joplin Tornado – Social Media and Disaster Relief

Last week, I had the privilege of talking with Genevieve Williams and David Burton, two of the three authors of “The Use of Social Media for Disaster Recovery,” a 32-page guide built on the experiences they (and their co-author Rebecca Williams) had in the wake of the powerful and destructive tornados that hit Joplin, Missouri, just over a year ago.

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Less than two hours after the tornados hit, Williams used her iPhone to set up Joplin Tornado Info, as a Facebook page and soon thereafter as a companion website. The sites went viral quickly as they began collecting and sharing vital information about needs, resources, transportation, storage and dispersal of aid. Within days, the Facebook page had 49,000 fans and dozens of volunteer administrators, including community leaders and official resource providers, like representatives of all the affected utilities.

As Williams explained to me during our conversation, she set up JTI because of her general sense in the immediate aftermath that there was an “information vacuum” that needed to be filled–and that both the media and local government were too busy on the ground in Joplin to offer that kind of coordinating role. She and her mother are trained “storm-spotters” and they had been watching the news closely at the Joplin tornados arrived. And as someone who didn’t live right in Joplin, where the most urgent need was to help victims and survivors of the massive tornados, she and her mother Rebecca sensed that they could be most helpful by providing timely and accurate information over the web. Burton was one of the first five people who volunteered to help them administer the websites, and together they have developed and are now sharing a deep set of “lessons learned” that communities everywhere should pay attention to. Not only that, they’ve applied those lessons to other natural disasters, building sites like Branson Tornado Info to help Branson cope with a tornado that hit this past February, and more recently setting up pages like Missouri Drought Info and Colorado Wildfire Info.

If you read their report, you will find many useful practical pointers, which I’ve highlighted below. Here I want to focus on the less tangible lessons that came out of our conversation.

1. Do not try this at home. That is, these kind of civic information hubs don’t succeed because it’s become ridiculously easy to set up a Facebook page or even a freestanding website. JTI benefited from the fact that Genevieve Williams herself is a social media and web marketing professional, and Burton is a former journalist who now works as the county program director and civic communication specialist for the Greene County Extension Center of Missouri University. I didn’t get to talk to Rebecca Williams, Genevieve’s mother, but I suspect her years of experience as a crisis intervention specialist and nurse came in handy in enabling the core group of volunteers running JTI to make a series of very wise decisions about how to build and manage their community site.

2. Crowdsource, but verify everything. Nothing, Genevieve Williams told me, was posted on the JTI pages without making sure it was factually accurate. She and her co-administrators knew, instinctively, that the only way their site would succeed as a resource was if they were scrupulously careful about what they posted, and they made sure to correct and admit errors as fast as they could. Some of the professionals in charge of Joplin relief efforts actually thought of Facebook as a place for rumors and disinformation, Williams said, so they knew they had to work hard to earn a reputation for credibility. In the early days, everything they posted was initialed by the person who wrote it, so they could have full transparency and accountability. They also didn’t just let anyone volunteer to help administer JTI–they made people fill out applications so they could prioritize people with useful skills and knowledge.

3. Understand the power of search. There’s a reason why pop-up sites like Joplin Tornado Info can rapidly “go viral” and become self-sustaining information hubs that whole communities can rely on. As Burton said to me during our conversation, when a disaster strikes, people don’t google for generic aid agencies like the “Red Cross.” They use search terms that are directly about the community affected. And this is one way that hyper-local self-generated hubs are likely to continue being more important than legacy organizations with national profiles–even ones like the Red Cross that do immensely valuable work. (Representatives from those relief organizations were welcomed as co-administrators on JTI’s web pages, though.)

4. Social media is just one tool in the larger tool-box. No one suggests that a community should stop using word of mouth, phone calls, postering , AM radio, and every other old-fashioned means of sharing information in the wake of a disaster, now that we have Facebook. And obviously there are many people who aren’t online or as comfortable getting information by using the Internet.

5. Independent community hubs have a special role to play. When I asked Williams and Burton if in the future it wouldn’t be better for sites like JTI to be built and managed by local governments or private relief agencies, they both balked. Neither of those can move fast enough, they said, suggesting that bureaucracy would get in the way. And those entities, they added, all come with baggage and might subtly skew the information they share to protect incumbent interests (or, in the case of a newspaper, the feelings of local advertisers). By contrast, a site like JTI run totally by volunteers could be completely focused on serving the people most hurt by the disaster, without fear or favor to anyone. As they say in their guide, “This is a crisis, not a contest. Don’t be afraid to borrow from other groups and don’t be upset when you are borrowed from. Fan all pertinent pages, repost and share.”

— originally posted June 29, 2012

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Christine M Audano

I would certainly love it if some from the Joplin area could attend the upcoming @NAGW conference in Kansas City September 12-14, 2012. I think it would be great to share stories with all government webmasters.