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03 Aug 15 22:59

Few who live in the United States and are old enough to recall Hurricane Katrina will ever forget the devastating images that poured out of New Orleans in the aftermath of the storm. Later this month marks ten years since Katrina made landfall and the images and videos of people pleading for help still resonate to this day.

Evacuation orders were put in place on Sunday, August 28—less than 24 hours before the hurricane's landfall. As someone who lives in the Northeast and was in New Jersey during Hurricane Sandy, this level of preparation seems unthinkable. In New Orleans, thousands were stranded at the Superdome and Convention Center, which became evacuation shelters of last resort. The conditions in these locations quickly deteriorated, with food and drinkable water running out almost immediately.

Meaningful help did not arrive for days, with the National Guard arriving at the Superdome on September 1—three days after the hurricane'slandfall. The Red Cross was never allowed to set up relief efforts, since search and rescue, not recovery, was the focus.  Many had to resort to desperate measures such as breaking into shuttered businesses to retrieve food, water, diapers and other basic necessities. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was roundly criticized for its lack of preparation and slow response to the event.

The Mayor of New Orleans did not escape attention either. He was criticized for failing to implement a comprehensive evacuation plan and to provide shelters for those unable to leave. The final death toll was more than 1,800.

FEMA, state governments, and national and local relief organizations came away with plenty of lessons learned from this disaster. Officials have also developed more sophisticated hurricane forecasting to improve awareness and preparation. But, at that time, there was no simple platform in which to disseminate lifesaving information such as evacuation orders and shelter locations. There was also no easy way to coordinate relief efforts among local organizations or reunite people with their loved ones and possessions. After all, iPhones were not yet on the scene, and Facebook was a year-old network that required a university email address to access. YouTube was a few months old and Instagram and Twitter hadn't yet been developed. Even the term "app" still referred to mozzarella sticks or chicken wings.

If we had access to these tools, I can't help but think about the impact that they may have had on the preparation, response and recovery effort for Katrina—not to mention the final death toll.

By the time Hurricane Sandy made its way up the Eastern Seaboard in October, 2012, social media had become a vital part of disaster preparedness and response. For example, evacuation orders in New York and New Jersey were put in place 36 – 48 hours in advance of the storm's landfall on Monday, October 29. Inland shelters inland were opened, stocked with food and water and reliable plumbing. In the immediate aftermath, boots on the ground were visible. AmeriCares moved in, distributing supplies to those in public shelters or damaged homes. FEMA, which had pre-positioned people and resources, established Incident Support Bases and Federal Staging Areas in NY, NJ and MA to distribute food, water, blankets and other basic necessities. The final death toll from Sandy was 163 people, and while communities were forever changed, resources were in place to help the recovery effort beginning the very next day.

In 2012, almost every person and business had a Facebook page, and governors and state Offices of Emergency Management "tweeted" extensively, allowing people to find and receive important, relevant and lifesaving information quickly and easily.

During the storm, with emergency call lines jammed, affected individuals reached out to the FDNY via Twitter, and received the help they so desperately needed. In the wake of Sandy, FEMA, the Red Cross, AmeriCares and local relief organizations could tweet, post and Instagram news about recovery efforts, providing help to those
impacted immediately. Ten years later, we can see how social media helps government officials, emergency management personnel and affected individuals provide real-time updates and respond more effectively to disasters such as Hurricane Sandy. As social media and apps continue to evolve, it's clear that these tools will continue to help improve disaster response and recovery—and save lives.


Category: Climate/natural disasters: Disaster risk, Earthquakes, Floods/storms, Resilience

Location: New Orleans, LA, United States


2 Comments

Daniel Martin Eckhart - 12 Aug 2015, 3:51 p.m.

Very good post. Brought back memories and yes, I'm with you - the pervasive connectivity can make a world of difference.

Urs Leimbacher - 26 Aug 2015, 2:43 p.m.

So social media actually can add in a way to resilience or capacity to "cope" - just by providing low threshold "work-arounds" when other channels may not work anymore....that's a fresh perspective on valued-added from digital...


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