How Social Media Is Changing Disaster Response

Social media has been an integral part of the disaster response to Hurricane Sandy. Millions of Americans used Twitter and Facebook to keep informed, locate loved ones, notify authorities and express support. “The convergence of social networks and mobile has thrown the old response playbook out the window,” said Michael Beckerman, president and CEO of the Internet Association. FEMA estimates that 20 million Sandy-related Twitter posts were sent in total.

Following the Boston Marathon bombings, one quarter of Americans reportedly looked to Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites for information, according to The Pew Research Center.

The fast-paced information available via social media does pose inherent risks. One is the rapid spread of misinformation— that is why FEMA created its Rumor Control web page-, and the other one is scammers using social media to steal cash. Whereas the American Red Cross generated more than $5 million via text message donations in the 48 hours following the Haiti earthquake in 2010, the FBI has warned that social media can also be a lucrative platform for crooks.


Cities step up disaster-response planning

The Rockefeller Foundation is encouraging cities to plan ahead for disasters, funding the position of “chief resilience officer” for 5 years in 100 cities around the world.

More US cities are getting ready to respond to disasters, whether natural or manmade. For instance, New Orleans now has “EvacuSpots” in place and has trained more than 300 volunteers. Cities are focusing on “resilience,” big-picture emergency planning that focuses on keeping critical systems functioning. That might include new flexible electrical grids and innovative communications systems. In San Francisco, a local think tank calculated that only 75% of the city’s housing would be usable after a large earthquake. But, to avoid a mass exodus, 95% of housing would need to allow residents to “shelter in place.”

The “chief resilience officer” idea took shape in Israel, where cities have had to recover quickly from suicide bombings and other attacks.  There, bouncing back is a strategic response that refuses terrorists the chance to cripple society. At the moment, no major U.S. city has a CRO.

One example of successful resilience planning was the response to the Boston Marathon bombings. Officials from several jurisdictions trained together for years in anticipation of such a scenario and collaborated successfully during the crisis.


FEMA Denies Texas Request for Full Disaster Aid, Rankling Stricken Town

Last month’s federal grants request from Gov. Rick Perry to President Obama amounted to a relatively small sum, but FEMA determined that Texas had enough fiscal resources.

Disaster and emergency response experts said that was the wisest decision. Mr. Perry has until early July to appeal. In Austin and in West, the denial of aid has been cast in simplistic terms, with many expressing shock that the federal government found that an explosion that killed 14 people and destroyed or severely damaged 193 of the town’s 700 homes did not qualify as a major disaster. Republican critics pointed out that Texas’ request was turned down seven weeks after the President pledged federal support.

The explosion in West was one of the worst industrial disasters in Texas history. Three of its four public schools as well as a nursing home and a 50-unit apartment complex sustained major damage or were destroyed. Half of West’s 700 homes had minor or major damage.