While at this point it is apparent that Hurricane Gustav is not going to turn into another Katrina, at the end of last week it was not so clear. What was clear is that social media is playing a bigger role in disaster preparedness and response than ever before.
As we went into the holiday weekend, I watched in awe from the sidelines as a tribe of people on Twitter mobilized to put social media tools into place to deal with the anticipated disaster, building on what had been created two years earlier on an ad hoc basis in the social aftermath of Katrina. With a volunteer effort led by Andy Carvin of NPR, the work centered around a Ning social network called the Gustav Information Center and a related wiki.
In this and other independent initiatives, many people created and compiled tools like Twitter feeds that broadcast government alerts, news, and blog links about Gustav, as well as a widget that combined all Twitter mentions of Gustav; an interactive map that shows evacuation routes, shelter locations and storm movement; a feed of Craigslist volunteering and housing opportunities; a mobile resource guide and more. ReadWriteWeb compiled a comprehensive list of the online resources that were created mostly in advance of the hurricane’s landfall.
While clearly the government was much better prepared to ensure there was no repeat of the chaos that ensued after the dropping of balls at multiple levels two years ago, and nonprofits like the Red Cross stood at the ready to assist people displaced by the storm, the prize for coordination has to go to the citizen volunteers who spent their Labor Day weekend building a massive online infrastructure. These are people who often had no connection to New Orleans other than a strong desire to do something to help their fellow humans. And by working together in a coordinated way, they were able to avoid duplicating efforts and use their volunteer time most efficiently.
Considering the massive resources that FEMA has at its disposal, the web page it created with information about the Federal response to Gustav is fairly paltry. The Red Cross utilized a blog as an online newsroom to good effect, with multimedia resources for the press and quick distribution of downloadable public service announcements. And its Safe and Well list can also be accessed via Twitter.
But it is the combined contributions of hundreds of social media enthusiasts that created a gale force of its own and demonstrated the raw power of the social web.