Currently showing: Climate/natural disasters > Climate change

25 Feb 14 13:41

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


Alicia Montoya - 2 Mar 2014, 2:55 p.m.

Sandy was incredible. Thanks to social media, we ALL lived through Sandy day by day, anecdote by anecdote, in a much more personal, emotional way than we normally had through the traditional media lens. And, as you say, we could all get involved and support, locally, real-time. Brilliant.

Here's a cool infographic mapping social media's growing role in disaster response:

It's an even a course in Hawaii! Social Media for Natural Disaster Response and Recovery

James Norberto - 5 Mar 2014, 4:41 p.m.

Great article Megan. I was one of the lucky NJ residents during Sandy - and I live 2 hours away from its ground zero. I lost power for 10 days, and actually had to relocate to Pennsylvania to maintain some sort of normalcy for my family. Sadly, I know families who are STILL seeking assistance - whether it be financial or emotional - and may be waiting even longer due to governmental bureaucracy.

What I find incredible is how social media - especially Twitter - has become the true "breaking news" outlet of this generation. The mainstream and cable news outlets overuse breaking news alerts, so I monitor social media frequently and will then "go old school" to receive a more detailed news report.

Gabor Jaimes - 6 Mar 2014, 3:28 a.m.

Thanks for sharing your experience Megan - and indeed a very good comparison between Sandy (2012) and Katrina (2005). In 2011 I also found myself in a quite surreal situation in Tokyo post earthquake, tsunami, nuclear meltdown (btw the 3rd anniversary is coming up on the 11th of March!). I also leveraged social media to keep my family and friends informed where I am and what my plans were in case things turn worse - gladly the situation improved quickly in Tokyo.
I wonder how social media could be leveraged in a more pro-active way to avoid casualties and destruction in case of approaching cyclones, floods, fires, tsunamis, etc. as these days we seem to listen more to our smart/mobile phones rather than to alerts on TV or radio.

Alicia Montoya - 16 Mar 2014, 6:46 a.m.

The latest example of how social media can help in disaster relief can be seen in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 that went missing last weekend. Digital Globe, a company that provides high-resolution Earth imagery, has deployed its crowdsourcing arm Tomnod to help in the search efforts.

The site has previously been used to tag objects after the typhoon in the Philippines, the tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, and Hurricane Sandy.

Here's how it works: "Digital Globe gathers recent satellite images from the 24,000 square kilometer search area. When you go to the site you are given a random image to search. If you see something of interest -- airplane wreckage, a life raft, an oil slick, or some other unusual object -- you can tag it. Anyone can volunteer their time to help with the search. An algorithm is then used to determine the areas with the most tags to help pinpoint areas of interest in the search."

According to Smart Planet, "more than 2 million people have already sifted through satellite images of the search area and tagged 645,000 objects of interest".

Crowdsourcing at its best, indeed! Join the search here:

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