In 2005, the book The World is Flat by Thomas J.Friedman was published, and in the same year, President Clinton founded the Clinton Global Initiative. Nine years later, while attending the winter CGI meeting in New York City, the phrase, "the world is flat," kept running through my head. Having participated in the discussion regarding the Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts, I believe the phrase, initially used to describe the globalization of the economy, now takes on so many new meanings in the age of social media and rapid mass mobilization.
Lines are blurring between the top-down, large government relief efforts and bottom up, grassroots efforts deployed after natural disasters. Individuals and communities no longer need to wait for federal or international relief agencies to roll into town; instead, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and other websites allow good Samaritans and those affected to coordinate relief efforts in real time and get boots on the ground where they're really needed. Also, these grassroots organizations can often help steer and improve rescue services and the dissemination of aid packages. A federal official flown into town is not going to know exactly where, for example, the elderly who need immediate help live, but a local pastor most likely will. Coordination across relief efforts of different scales is critical, and will help save lives and distribute aid efficiently.
Hurricane Sandy was the first true "social media storm" in the United States and the first storm where coordination across relief efforts was observed. One only needs to look to another seminal event of 2005, Hurricane Katrina, to see the distinction. We all remember the footage on the news after Katrina; the squalid conditions at the Convention Center and the Superdome and the desperation of the citizens of New Orleans, with relief efforts being days out, and financial relief being weeks out. Within 12 hours of Hurricane Sandy's landfall, Facebook pages to connect people who were separated were up and Facebook groups coordinating donations were already listing drop off points. Within 24 hours, Facebook groups dedicated to helping people recover treasured possessions were live, with pictures of recovered items posted in hopes of reuniting them with their owners. Small businesses which were initially used as staging grounds for grassroots relief efforts made room when the international relief agencies moved in, producing centralized locations for all relief efforts.
Hurricane Sandy also demonstrated the importance of community; another takeaway from CGI was the discussion around the results of a survey focusing on community recovery efforts. Communities whose populations reported strong ties and a deep appreciation or loyalty to their community have recovered quicker in the 18 months post-Sandy than those communities where the individuals don't feel a sense of oneness. In a merging of social media and community, neighborhood-themed Facebook groups sprung up in a matter of hours, as sources of information for all residents, with pictures and real time information streaming continuously. Within 3 days, I myself had tangible images which showed that all homes in our neighborhood were structurally intact (the first picture I saw post-Sandy is embedded in this post). While the images did not show the full extent of Sandy's impact, myself, family and friends were able to at least get confirmation that our street, so dear to so many of us, was not washed away.
There will be another Sandy; we can argue that the next Sandy already occurred in the form of Typhoon Haiyan and the Moore EF5 tornado. Mass mobilization stirred by social media occurred after these events too; helping individuals to reconnect, recover and start to rebuild their lives. Natural disasters are a fact of life, but as a society, we have a real opportunity to shift the recovery paradigm, thanks to virtual rapid information sharing.
Category: Climate/natural disasters: Climate change, Disaster risk, Floods/storms, Resilience
Location: New York, NY, United States