Emergency workers and residents turned to social media even before the series of deadly tornadoes that ripped through the Tri-State last March had lifted.
Victims of last year's tornadoes that killed 11 people, destroyed 343 structures and damaged thousands more used Facebook and Twitter to document the storms, alert their followers, friends and families to their conditions and to find their missing pets. At the same time, volunteers and community leaders created special Facebook pages to help coordinate volunteer efforts.
Social networks – coupled with cellphones that get smarter by the day – have become the phone tree of yesteryear.
The practice is becoming so commonplace, that Facebook has dedicated a page that offers tips to how to use social media before, during and after a natural disaster. The page, compiled by the American Red Cross, Federal Emergency Management Agency and others in 2011, provides links to both the Red Cross and FEMA Facebook pages.
In Kentucky, 550 people had joined the Facebook group "Coordination of Help for NKY Victims of 3.2.12 Tornadoes" by midnight on the night of the storm.
Susette Reinhart, of Richwood, created the page as a way get in touch with friends who also wanted to help storm victims. The page quickly populated the news feeds of people across the Internet and people like Lisa Raterman became aware of it.
"I didn't know Susette at first," said Raterman, of Fort Wright. "One of my friends ‘liked' the page on Facebook and I joined and then reached out to her privately. Susette and I, along with a group of others, helped administer the page pretty much around the clock over the few four or five weeks."
The page administrators used Facebook resources to find out names, phone numbers and addresses of both volunteers and victims of the storm.
"People could contact us and (we) served as a safety net for families who wouldn't necessarily know how to go about filing an insurance claim or getting in touch with an organization," Raterman said.
The page also served as an electronic bulletin board that listed organizations that were attempting to get involved, what efforts groups were undertaking and where supplies could be dropped off.
"It streamlined things," Raterman said. "We obviously had a few logistical issues involving spreadsheets and supplies after the first few weeks, but it really helped us coordinate things. It would have been a completely different effort without Facebook."
Raterman said the response to the group's social media effort was so dramatic early on that she didn't actually make it to a physical disaster site for the first few weeks of the operation.
"You know, you'd never think that having too many donated items would be a bad thing but it did get to be a logistical issue at one point," said Raterman. "With the fear of bed bugs, we had to find a way to get people to volunteer to haul and clean clothes. Facebook helped us find those people."
The coordinators of the "3.2.12" page weren't alone. They were joined both on social media sites and in the field by multiple local chapters of national organizations.
"United Way and the Red Cross partnered with us and we're still involved with them today," said Raterman. "Those groups are more well-known so it made us more established by being associated with them. We complemented one another's strengths."
Coordinating with groups like the United Way of Greater Cincinnati , the Cincinnati area chapter of the American Red Cross , local Catholic Charities of America groups and a collection of other organizations, the Facebook page allowed volunteers and supplies to be mobilized quickly and effectively. Raterman said the outpouring of support became so great that people monitored the page consistently.
"People were posting, like 24-7 for a good four or five weeks," Raterman said.
While Raterman's social media effort was limited to Facebook, the American Red Cross and the United Way turned to Twitter as well to mobilize volunteers. They also used the Twitter to the areas in need in real time.
Soteria Brown, regional communications officer for the American Red Cross, said the experience changed the way the local branch approached the use of social media in disaster situations.
"The tornadoes hit about 5 p.m., I think. That next morning one of our Facebook accounts had about 60 new fans and people were asking for information about how they could help," Brown said. "We had to change the way we did things by responding directly to people more than usual."
Twitter helped them pinpoint victims in need instantly.
"[Social media] puts help at the fingertips of people in need. They may not have power or be listening to radio, but, my goodness, people always have their cellphones," Brown said.
The around-the-clock messages, new information and requests of help kept coming into the organization's Twitter account for the first two weeks after the tragedy. "It was really amazing to see how we could respond and make an impact right away. Twitter allowed
us to keep pushing out information people needed."
Amy Roberts said the United Way of Greater Cincinnati also used social media to "get people to the right place" and establish "volunteer connections."
While the immediate crisis is over, social media is still being used to aid in the recovery effort.
Groups such as the " Northern Kentucky Community Action Commission (NKCAC) " in Grant County and " Lost animals from KY, IN, OH from the Tornadoes " are mobilizing efforts on Facebook to help those who continue to suffer from the aftermath of the storm.
The lost animals page allows pet owners to post pictures of their missing pets after the storm and search through photos and links of people who found pets. The page also features information on where to send pet- and animal-related items needed for donation.
The page had 3,500 "likes" 11 days after the storm and had 3,618 likes as of Feb. 21, 2013. The page is still being used.
"Suffering doesn't stop after the first six months and people can't wait until after the winter to get what they need," said Lauren Young, a counselor with the Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Covington .
Raterman and her group created a new Facebook page – " Northern Kentucky Long Term Recovery Committee " – in order to prepare for the future.
"Moving forward this is where we will post information regarding any future natural disasters and the recovery process for those affected here in Northern Kentucky," said Raterman.
"I think we've learned how to best use social media for donation management and moving people around most effectively."
Young said she hopes social media can be used not only for crisis, but also for ongoing education:
"There are a lot of things people need to know so they're ready in the first three or four days so the second disaster isn't the recovery effort."
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