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Blogs Offer Communication, Information, and Connections During Disasters

Hurricane Gustav satellite photo

Hurricane Gustav satellite photo

Jonathan Bailey of Plagiarism Today just called me from Northern Louisiana to report that he and his family have survived the evacuation from their home in Shreveport, Louisiana, though Hurricane Gustav appears to have done more damage where they evacuated to rather than where they left from.

Jonathan and I were both victims of Hurricane Katrina three years ago when that storm ripped our lives apart in its wake, and played an important role in our lives then as well as now. I was in Mobile, Alabama, at the time, having just started on the brand new a week or so before the hurricane hit the Gulf Coast, causing destruction over tens of thousands of square miles along the coast and deep into the country. The hurricane’s storm surge plowed 22 feet of water up the Dog River to where we lived, bringing destruction in it’s wake and retreat. Tornado force winds ripped out trees and turned them into missiles. Nary a sign, building, nor person was safe with the winds and the force of the storm surge waters.

While running from the storm to Atlanta at the last minute when the score turned from Category 4 to Category 5, only to have Katrina follow us and beat us down, causing death and destruction in Atlanta a few days later, I blogged about many of the first blogs about Hurricane Katrina and about how blogs helped and impacted our lives in the wake of the storm. Katrina also impacted bloggers hit by spammer abusing Katrina fascination with their comment spams within a couple weeks of the hurricane’s landfall.

In Blogging in a Disaster on the , Jonathan Bailey reported on how he continues to blog even as an evacuee, maintaining his online work as well as staying in touch and reporting on his own hurricane experience. He offers some great tips, including a new one I wished I’d had during my own disaster experiences. He recommends your site is hosted on the server cloud or grid, which I spoke about recently:

3. Move Data to The Cloud

Any information that you need to run your site, put it in a secure place on the Web. Remember that you will likely be using a strange computer so any URLs that you can’t remember and type by hand, put those on the Web too. If you use a program to store your passwords, store a cache of those on the Web also. Obviously, you’ll want to encrypt and secure such information before posting it.

Even if you have your own browser on a thumb drive, as recommended above, it is best to make sure everything is in multiple places. I have been repeatedly saved by my private bookmarks on Diigo.

Today, we have more resources for backups and protecting our site, so take advantage of them now in safe times, as well as for disaster protection and backups. For those with blogs on the cloud or grid and using cache Plugins and the latest version of with improved cache, their sites could easily flex and withstand the sudden influx of traffic without crashing or breaking bandwidth restrictions.

In addition to Jonathan’s tips on blogging a disaster, I’d add:

  • Bring cameras, video, and audio recording equipment to preserve your memories and experiences for uploading to your blog and for your own records.
  • Bring more than plenty of all the appropriate batteries for your various equipment.
  • Have your blog setup with image, audio, and video uploading WordPress Plugins installed and be familiar with how they work.
  • Sign up in advance with video, audio, and image hosting services so you can quickly upload, store, and link to those images from within your blog.
  • Backup your evacuation and escape routes. Have at least two backup plans for evacuation and escape, before evacuating and for during the evacuation. Evacuation routes shift as the storm changes its course, and the storm may suddenly change speed, arriving ahead of schedule or behind. Be prepared to move fast and stay long.

Blogs Offer Communication, Information, and Connections During Disasters

In the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, blogs served up information and first hand experiences of the wait for the massive hurricane. People provided resources for help, evacuation, and reports on what they were doing to prepare for the hurricane. With the fast and easy set up for a blog, and the newly created free blog hosting service, many of those Hurricane Katrina blogs were powered by WordPress, as are many blogs with Hurricane Gustav news and reports.

During the hurricane, a few blogs, typically ones supported by news agencies and the media with generators and situated in defensible and protected locations, kept us up-to-date with the disaster as it happened from their perspective, as did the media in general.

I remember watching weather reporters hanging onto railings as debris flew all around them, microphones clutched in their white knuckled hands screaming and shouting to be recorded over the strong winds and crashing water sounds. I thought then as I do now, “We don’t need to have a blow by blow report that bad. We can wait.” But the media needed the sensational perspective to keep watchers glued to their televisions and websites for the up-to-the-minute status of the ent. And some bloggers tried to emulate the journalists, putting their lives at risk.

With uploading and embedding of video with WordPress Plugins like PodPress as well as the Smart YouTube, NextGEN Gallery, Flickr Photo Album, and the popular Viper’s Video Quicktags, it’s fast and simple to add video of all types to your WordPress blog. However, never risk your life for the sake of images for your blog. Leave that to the professionals – whom we hope are better trained and skilled at surviving the hazards mother nature throws their way.

With debris covering the highways and access points, it took a while for rescue and recovery services to get into many areas, as well as for evacuees to return. For those still connected to the web with generators and satellite or still working cell phones, blogs brought information faster than most news and government agencies. They also spread rumors like wild fire.

After the hurricane, blogs played a huge role in not only reporting on the activity, but exaggerating it. In my article series on controversies and blogs, I wrote about how the events in the New Orleans Astrodome were exaggerated and turned into an urban legend due to a blogger faking the story:

Hurricane Katrina brought of a lot conspiracy theories and hoaxes into play, including a huge one which played into the in the wake of the disaster. Since it was easy to believe that people will descend into violence and “ugly” at the drop of a social hat, and that the government is useless in such situations, many believed what was reported as an “eye-witness account” instead of looking at all the information before judging. Supposedly eye witness accounts reported on horrors that were later found to be untrue, and there is a lot of confusion over who actually wrote this and whether or not they were even there. Yet, many bloggers continue to point to these as proof of whatever theory they support on what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and the dikes breaking.

We’ll have to watch out for Gustav scams, but in general, blogs did more good than bad as many bloggers stepped up to help by checking out their neighborhoods and communities and reporting on the status of individual homes and businesses, by helping to connect families and friends separated by the storm, by recruiting and directing volunteers and donations for delivery to the needy all along the Gulf Coast, not just to New Orleans. Bloggers pitched in, reported, helped, and aided others all over the country, including opening their homes up to those in need.

Learning from the past, many popular and high traffic blogs jumped up to offer links, resources, and references to help with those confronting or trying to comprehend Hurricane Gustav including HGeekdad from Wired.com, Read/Write/Web, and others.

Social media in general, including microblogs like Twitter, Friendfeed, and Tumblr, played a huge role in preparation, response, and reaction to Hurricane Gustav. According to Weberence.com, Hurricane Gustav is the first major US hurricane covered by microblogging services like Twitter. Within a short time, a specific Twitter Search for Gustav became a popular search and feed. No Turn on Red reported on how Home Depot is using their Twitter account for tips on how to prepare for the upcoming hurricane, one of many using Twitter this way. Ki Mae Heussner of ABC News even covered the impact of social media as an “emergency tool” for reporting on the hurricane.

Legitimate news media used Twitter, too. The New Orleans Times-Picayune (NOLA.com), the USA Today Weather Guys, Reporters from the Chicago Tribune, and even the Red Cross all used Twitter to microblog the news, tips, resources, references, and information.

Jazzy Chad created the Hurricane Gustav Twitter Widget if you wanted to track Hurricane Gustav news on your blog through Twitter.

A FriendFeed Hurricane Room for chatting was also started, incorporating Twitter and Friendfeed and online chatting.

A Facebook page was created called the Hurricane Gustav Digital Support Brigade to help connect those seeking help and information on the storm.

Gustav Information Center on Ning became a major resource for many, including media and government sources. It featured a forum, blog posts, Twitter, news, links, video, photos, and a variety of feeds from all over with information on the hurricane, responses, and services, as well as individual bloggers covering the hurricane on their blogs, much in the style of the upcoming WordPress Theme for social media, BuddyPress. Another Hurricane Gustav aggregator was created to collect information from Twitter, Google, YouTube, Flickr, and more.

Weather bloggers were in their prime, many using Wunderground’s WunderBlogs network to link together their blogs. Dr. Jeff Masters’ Weather Blog, Climate Change Blog, Ultimate Chase Photo Blog, Northeast Weather Blog, Tropical Weather Discussion, StormW’s Tropical Forecast Desk, vortfix, Tazmanian, vortfix, mysticmoondancer, and cyclonebuster had hundreds of comments, the comments often containing more information than their blog posts as many discussed the reality on the ground versus the satellite and weather images and reports and their perceptions of the information posted. The The Weather Nerd and BehindtheWeather.com were recommended by many for coverage of the storm.

Within minutes of the first announcement that Gustav was heading towards landfall, a Wikipedia page for Hurricane Gustav was created and updated through the storm’s course, and will continue to be updated as more information is added as the facts come in.

Today, we have more sources than ever to track what is going on with a disaster as well as a way for individuals to express themselves before, during, and after disasters.

For the bloggers living, working, and surviving in disaster areas, they have a lot to teach us about how blogs can help and serve our online community. Those who want to help from outside the impacted areas are learning more about how to integrate multiple media and blog sources into a single aggregator without impinging upon copyrights, creating central clearing houses for news and information. The more we learn about how useful blogs are in a disaster, the more our blogs will improve overall.



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Copyright Lorelle VanFossen, the author of Blogging Tips, What Bloggers Won't Tell You About Blogging.

7 Comments

  1. Posted September 3, 2008 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    Your image sure caught my attention when it showed up on my feed this afternoon! It got me thinking, check the track of Hanna to see how it will affect our towns weekend activities. We use wordpress as a Local News Service. Sure enough, the track takes it right to us. We scooped the “real press” thanks Lorelle.

    Now I think I’ll do some backups.

  2. Posted September 3, 2008 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    @ Steve Young:

    You are welcome, and you take care, too. Having been through enough hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and human disasters, they aren’t much fun but can be if you plan right. :D Good luck preparing your community for the possibility. You never know, and it is always better to be prepared. Luckily, modern technology certainly helps.

    Stay safe!

  3. Miztura
    Posted September 3, 2008 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

    As the song goes, even the best fall down sometimes: web hosting disasters.

  4. Posted September 4, 2008 at 1:31 am | Permalink

    Sometimes it still boggles my mind as to all the different ways a blog can be used. How many people have their own little personal blogs that have the possibility to suddenly become a news source for those desperately looking for information? Being still fairly new to blogging, I am still trying to train myself to look at things for their blog-worthy potential. It’s an amazing world out there.

  5. Posted September 4, 2008 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    @ Miztura:

    While a web host issue can be considered a “disaster” by some, that’s not the kind of disaster we are talking about. :D But you make some good points. Thanks.

  6. amolpatil2k
    Posted September 4, 2008 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    Just like hotels offer space on rent ABOVE ground, there should be some sort of enterprise where space BELOW ground is offered on rent. Also there should be some sort of safety lockers BELOW ground available on multi-year contracts. These should have a CCD which can be accessed via a secure website so that you can inspect them whenever you wish. Another thing is to have underground bunkers which rent space recreational vehicles so that the maintenance cost is low. The bunkers supply only toilets, water and telephone lines.

  7. Posted January 7, 2009 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    What a timely reminder about using blogs to communicate important information during disasters and emergencies. Thank you for posting this.

    I am exploring two ideas at the moment, in the context of your post: using blogs for “out of band” communications during emergencies, and using Twitter as a continuity-of-operations tool. Your blog post has helped me think about these ideas.


7 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] VanFossen has just written a great blog post about using blogging as a communications tool during natural disasters–particularly relevant given the recent landfall of Hurricane Gustav. Her blog post is a bit [...]

  2. [...] post on ways that blogs and social media are most effective during a time of disaster. In the post, Blogs Offer Communication, Information, and Connections During Disasters, there is a great rundown of the different ways in which social media was used well in advance of [...]

  3. [...] At the other end of the spectrum is communicating during disasters or emergencies. The popular blog, Lorelle on WordPress, discusses that in a recent post called “Blogs Offer Communication, Information, and Connections During Disasters. [...]

  4. [...] Jonathan Bailey of the Blog Herald wrote about Surfing the Slow Web, a summary of his recent experience trying to connect to the Internet as an evacuee from Hurricane Gustav. While most web designers are pushing the limits of heavy handed design towards high bandwidth, the [...]

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  6. [...] sostiene che “i blog offrono comunicazione, informazione e connessioni durante i disastri”. [...]

  7. […] Blogs Offer Communication, Information, and Connections During Disasters […]

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