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Social Media Changed How People Experienced Hurricane Ida

Emergency response officials said in addition to helping to warn residents about flooding on roads and other risks, social media was a priceless tool to quickly get information out about available resources.

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(TNS) — Ryan Thoden would unknowingly start his career as a storm chaser when he was 10.

He remembers venturing out into the eye of the storm as Hurricane Sandy slammed New Jersey in 2012. At the time, he was staying with his grandmother in Pennsville, Salem County.

“I had already been interested in weather since I was 7 … I was with my little cousin and my aunt and we walked to the river while we were in the eye. That moment really influenced my passion for it,” Thoden said.

Nine years later, Thoden would be standing in Mullica Hill — holding up his phone a stone’s throw from one of the most powerful tornadoes on record in New Jersey. It was one of seven confirmed during the deadly Tropical Storm Ida in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and strong enough to be classified as an EF-3 on the Enhanced Fujita intensity scale.

“As soon as I saw it touch down, go across the road and begin to turn up houses I thought, ‘This is bad.’ I was very emotional at the time. I was on the brink of crying,” said Thoden, who posted the short video on Twitter a few minutes later.

The 19-year-old from Carneys Point said without social media readily accessible, instantly sharing the video of the tornado to hundreds of thousands of people online wouldn’t have been possible. Over 50 news outlets reached out for permission to re-broadcast the clip. He said he looked at publishing the video as a public service to warn residents of the dangers of the storm.

Thoden was one of thousands of people throughout New Jersey who took to Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms to share clips of Ida’s impact in the region. Videos of people dealing with floodwaters overwhelming their homes, winds shaking their windowpanes and power outages leaving them in the dark were posted as it was happening.

City officials said in addition to helping to warn residents about flooding on roads and other risks, social media was a priceless tool to quickly get information out about available resources.

What’s changed since Sandy

Around the time Superstorm Sandy hit in October 2012, a Pew Research Center study showed that 59% of U.S. adults were on at least one social media website. A February Pew study from this year indicates that number has jumped to 72%.

“Social media even nine years ago was very prominent. If you were to mark a change between now and then, I’d say there’s more prevalence of online video,” said Joel Penney, associate professor at the Montclair State University School of Communication and Media.

“People are more comfortable shooting videos on their phones and posting them,” said Penney, a Hoboken resident who saw the impact of the storm on his own city online in real-time. “I was seeing someone being rescued from their car and I recognized where that was. So, it’s not just informative, these videos have more power over people’s emotions and how they respond to what’s happening.”

Passaic Mayor Hector Lora capitalized on that power, he said.

As more than 200 calls streamed in on the night of the storm, the mayor took to Facebook to warn residents about taking to the roads. In an early video, he confirmed someone had died in a submerged vehicle. It is one of at least 30 deaths attributed to Ida so far in the state.

“Water rose from five to eight feet in some areas. You can say that to people, but it’s different when they can see it live,” said Lora.

Images of homes inundated with brown water and emergency personnel vehicles getting stuck in flooded thoroughfares were particularly impactful, Lora said.

“When you think about how many weather alerts people are getting on their phones as the storm is happening, they can take that for granted … I believe resources like social media resulted in lives saved,” he said.

Lora hopes more government officials take advantage of social networks to communicate with locals. When Sandy hit he was a commissioner and mainly recalls seeing the aftermath of that storm on social media — instead of the immediate effects.

But even back then Lora said he used the platforms to reach people in the county.

He’s learned lessons along the way, like keeping the message brief and not over-posting content on the account during non-emergency periods. Another example: In his town of 75% Hispanic residents, he always makes sure to translate video content in Spanish.

Useful in the aftermath too

More thana 7 miles south of Passaic, Paterson was dealing with its own woes during the storm.

Mayor André Sayegh took to Facebook and Instagram — going live multiple times to speak on street and bridge closures, rescue operations and the opening of an emergency shelter.

“I also did live videos notifying people about the boil water advisory,” said Sayegh. “After the storm, we partnered with a local supermarket for residents to come and get a free case of water — and that was on social media as well. It’s been a useful tool.”

What makes Sayegh wary about using social media during natural disasters is misinformation being shared, although he did not find that was the case during Ida, he said.

Both Lora and Sayegh also expressed concerns about technology access among some residents and reaching the elderly who may not be on social media.

The mayors said they’ve taken steps to ensure those messages get out to all residents by using robocalls or working with families or neighbors of the elderly to keep them informed.

Michael Zhadanovsky, a spokesman for Gov. Phil Murphy, said the state also saw social media as “critical” to its statewide response efforts.

“In emergency situations like Tropical Storm Ida, having a large and engaged social media base allows us to keep New Jersey residents aware of severe weather risks. Before Ida’s arrival in New Jersey, the governor’s accounts, and those of relevant agencies posted warnings and other notices about the impending storm,” Zhadanovsky said.

“Following the storm, the accounts transitioned to providing information about relief and recovery efforts, including applications for state and federal disaster recovery programs,” he said.

Penney, the associate professor at the Montclair State, noted he was surprised to see how the social media conversation quickly shifted to environmental justice as the fierce storm hit New Jersey.

“It was almost immediate,” Penney said. “It was interesting to see how it wasn’t disconnected for people. Looking at a big storm like this, they were right away segueing that conversation into a political one about the threat of climate change and putting it into context.”

© 2021 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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