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Virginia Earthquake Sets Off Wave of Emergency Tweets

Widespread use of social media in earthquake’s aftermath is the latest example of how Web 2.0 technology has changed emergency communication.

by , / August 23, 2011

The magnitude 5.8 earthquake that struck Tuesday, Aug. 23, in central Virginia was felt far and wide — from New York City to the Carolinas and west to Ohio. The rare East Coast temblor prompted building evacuations, disrupted sporting events, and even shut down two nuclear reactors close to the epicenter.

The emergency situation also demonstrated first responders’ and city officials’ sophisticated use of social media, especially Twitter. Many law enforcement agencies and emergency personnel began tweeting within minutes of the earthquake in order to disseminate information to the public.

Washington, D.C.’s Fire and Emergency Medical Services agency reported on its Twitter feed @dcfireems that there had been damage to the National Cathedral and the Ecuador Embassy, and evacuations at the Old Soldiers Home. DC Fire and EMS tweeted it was “checking structures, priority given to schools, hospitals, senior [centers].”

DC Fire and EMS reported on social media that it had received nearly 2,000 calls for service since 2 p.m. Eastern time. By comparison, the daily average is 450 in a 24-hour period.

Initial reports also indicated that cell phone service was down or disrupted in many areas affected by the earthquake, and in turn the public turned to social media to get information and connect with their friends and family. Citizen Twitter user @CyberlandGal told her 1,911 followers: “Interesting to note I had no cell service until 1 3/4 hrs after #DCquake but Twitter & SMS worked fine. Could get news right away.”

Officials at all levels of government used social media to spread information about the communications issues. Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), used Twitter via @CraigatFEMA to urge people in affected areas to not use their cell phones: “FEMA is monitoring reports from earthquake, cell service busy in DC, try to stay off cell phone if it is not an emergency.”

A range of New York City agencies took to social media, including emergency personnel. Notify NYC, the city’s official source for information about emergency events, posted on Twitter an hour after the quake that there had been “no reports of major damage, injuries, transit, or utility disruptions in NYC at this time.”

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg told constituents through his official Twitter feed that as a precaution the city was inspecting major bridges at major river crossings, and that there had been no indication of damage. Bloomberg urged property owners to inspect their own buildings.

The Twitter feed of New York-New Jersey’s airports reported delays and a brief suspension of service in order to complete post-earthquake inspections.

Richmond, Va.’s official Twitter feed, @CityRichmondVA, posted a link to the city’s home page. The post said Richmond City Hall had been evacuated and would be checked for structural damage. There had been no reported damage to the city’s infrastructure as of 3:30 p.m. Eastern time, according to the update.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s Twitter feed, @whitehouseostp, noted that tweets about the earthquake reached New York City before the aftershocks did.

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Matt Williams Contributing Writer

Matt Williams was previously the news editor of, and is now a contributor to Government Technology and Public CIO magazines. He also previously served as the managing editor of TechWire, a sister publication to Government Technology.2

Elaine Pittman Former Managing Editor

Elaine Pittman worked for Government Technology from 2008 to 2017.

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