Preparedness & Recovery

Sandy Marked a Shift for Social Media Use in Disasters

Government agencies and others turned to online technologies to communicate with the public like never before.

by Sara Estes Cohen / March 7, 2013
Steve Zumwalt/FEMA

First it was the AOL chat rooms, followed by online community chat and discussion boards, then it was blogs. Since 2000, social media has expanded to include Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and more. Social media today is not about the tools, but the technology and behavior — virtual collaboration, information sharing and grass-roots engagement — that transforms monologues into dialogues. Social media empowers individuals, providing them a platform from which to share opinions, experiences and information from anywhere at any time.

Individuals have increasingly used social media in disasters as well. As the popularity and accessibility of online and mobile technologies has grown, we have experienced these events firsthand, through photos, text, online posts and videos captured from the ground, posted to Facebook and shared via Twitter, YouTube and other tools. We have watched the fall of governments, water rescues, train crashes, wildfires, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and school shootings from our computers and mobile phones. Throughout these events, social media emerged as a popular and powerful tool used by the public to engage and share information.

Hurricane Sandy marked a shift in the use of social media in disasters. More than ever before, government agencies turned to mobile and online technologies. Before, during and after Sandy made landfall, government agencies throughout the Northeast used social media to communicate with the public and response partners, share information, maintain awareness of community actions and needs, and more.


Public Awareness


Throughout Hurricane Sandy, the public turned to social media for updates and assistance, and more than ever before, response agencies, organizations and community groups used social media to organize and direct resources where needed. Twitter and Facebook were used extensively by individuals, first responder agencies and utility companies to relay messages and information, share evacuation orders and provide updates on the storm. For example, the New York Office of Emergency Management provided hourly updates and evacuation orders via Twitter, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie relayed updates about the storm, aid and evacuation orders via his personal Twitter account.

New York City, with support from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, began using social media for a variety of purposes after Hurricane Irene in fall 2012, enabling the city’s services, offices and departments to engage and inform the public through digital means. Even before Hurricane Sandy, the city’s social media presence attracted 3 million followers across more than 300 city accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and more. In addition to managing NYC.gov, the city maintains numerous channels, including Facebook pages, Flickr, Google+, Tumblr, Twitter (in both English and Spanish) and YouTube. Throughout response and recovery to the storm, these channels provided the city with the means to share information in various formats, enabling people to find and consume information as they preferred. 

Throughout the storm, NYC Digital, a part of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, monitored social media for public reactions to the storm, sending reports to City Hall on a daily basis. Questions asked on Twitter were responded to directly, and the city’s Tumblr account and Facebook page published information from each press conference. The public could sign up to receive text alerts from the Mayor’s Office Twitter account, @nycmayorsoffice, which served as a great alternative digital resource to the city’s website, once people lost power and Internet access.

FEMA also used social media heavily in addition to traditional means, sharing information and engaging the public across multiple channels both on and offline, including face to face, television, radio, print and digital (Web, social and mobile) for preparedness prior to landfall, and to provide actionable, practical, relevant and current information to those in the affected areas and others outside of the storm’s path. FEMA published a Sandy-specific page on FEMA.gov as a one-stop-shop for all Sandy-related information, and stood up Sandy-specific Facebook and Twitter profiles as well.

In the days up to and immediately following Sandy’s landfall, FEMA had a team watching the nearly 20 million Twitter messages posted about Sandy to better identify what was happening on the ground and put out timely safety information. On Oct. 29, the day Sandy made landfall, FEMA reached more than 300,000 people on Facebook (up from an average of 12,000 per day), reached 6 million Twitter users with one message (through retweets by individuals and partners), saw 5,800 mentions on Twitter per hour (of the term “FEMA”) and had more than 500,000 visitors to Ready.gov that day alone.

Agencies, volunteers and ad-hoc groups used various social media tools to assist in response and then recovery, such as SMS for donations and Facebook support groups. For example, a New York citizens’ group, called BK Girls Give Back, helped to provide assistance to families displaced by Sandy. Additionally, Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker offered his home as a charging station to neighbors.

The American Red Cross used a variety of social media tools to carry out the organization’s mission online to help its community become more informed and prepared and to provide the public with a seat at the operational table, using information gleaned from the public to help in decision-making during a disaster. Led by a three-person national social engagement team, the American Red Cross is assisted by digital volunteers, local chapters, local volunteers and other partners. Throughout the storm, the Red Cross pulled more than 2 million posts for review, choosing specific keyword searches relevant to Red Cross services, such as shelter and emotional support. Thirty-one digital volunteers responded to 2,386 of the reviewed posts (versus 500 in Hurricane Isaac). About 229 posts were sent to mass care teams, and 88 resulted in a change in action on ground operations. The American Red Cross also offered a Hurricane App for both iPhone and Android device users to assist in individual recovery.


Rumor Control


Social media vehicles became primary sources of information for many. Information was verified and rumors were disseminated and dispelled via a variety of tools, including Twitter, Facebook and photo sharing as the event unfolded, and when false reports and images began circulating on the Internet, including a photo of the New York Stock Exchange under three feet of water, first responder agencies such as the New York City Fire Department posted messages on Twitter and other social media sites to correct misinformation.

FEMA launched a Hurricane Sandy: Rumor Control page, which helped to distinguish the truth from false information about contractors, cash cards, food stamps and shelters. FEMA posted popular rumors alongside accurate information in an attempt to dispel inaccuracies and encourage reposting of correct content. A green check mark placed next to a post, indicated that the information was correct. A red “x” indicated that the information was incorrect. Accurate information often included links to external sources for additional information. Some of the rumors that were dispelled (or verified) on the site included reports of bridge failures, lack of critical resources like water, location of shelters and other support, and the status of ongoing recovery efforts.


Lessons Learned


In 2010, the DHS S&T’s First Responders Group established a Virtual Social Media Working Group (VSMWG) to address the challenges of using social media in public safety. The mission of the VSMWG — whose membership is drawn from a cross-section of subject experts from federal, tribal, territorial, state and local responders from across the U.S. — is to provide recommendations to the emergency preparedness and response community on the safe, sustainable use of social media technologies before, during and after emergencies.

Since its inception, the VSMWG has published three guidance documents with input from the first responder community that address social media and its benefits for public safety, best practices, challenges and next steps, and guidance on social media for community engagement.

Throughout Hurricane Sandy, the VSMWG collected examples of how social media was used by agencies, volunteer and ad-hoc groups to capture themes and best practices for development of lessons learned.

From these examples, thematic analysis and input from the public safety community, the VSMWG is now developing its fourth guidance document, highlighting how social media was used in preparation for, response to and recovery from Hurricane Sandy in late October 2012. The document discusses processes identified by the first responder community as best practices, and captures lessons learned, gaps in technology, process and/or policy, and points requiring further discussion and possible development. Once finalized, the document will be available on DHS First Responder Communities of Practice, an online collaboration platform for those working in public safety-related fields, and FirstResponder.gov.

While Hurricane Sandy represents a significant advancement in the use of social media for public safety, there remain several challenges and questions. Further research, technology development and assessment and discussion, as well as additional funding, policy and process are needed before many of these can be addressed. As the popularity, acceptance and technological capabilities of social media tools continue to grow, so too will the need for standardized methods, new funding streams and guidance. With each new event comes an opportunity to learn from past mistakes and to apply new technologies in an operational environment. It is essential to address these challenges now, to ensure these tools are used to the full extent of their abilities, and to help guide the development and application of social media tools for public safety in the future.

Since 2010, Sara Estes Cohen has worked as a project manager for G&H International, providing support to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology First Responders Group in Washington, D.C. She also facilitates the DHS First Responders Group’s Virtual Social Media Working Group.