Storyful Blog

Social media and #Sandy relief: The kindness of strangers (and their publishing platforms)

Hurricane Sandy came rolling in late last month with a few days notice and a lot of angst for the city I live in: New York. More than 750,000 people were left without power, and much of our public transportation and thousands of businesses were shut down for over five days. But those unaffected – both in the city and across the country – rallied to the aid of victims, and used the Internet and its social tools to do so.

There were hyperlocal tree maps showing where trees were downed, an online crowdfunding portal for donating money to the top volunteer organizations and charities helping in the response, an Occupy-built platform to coordinate volunteers, Facebook events bringing volunteers, supplies, and donations together, Twitter hashtags highlighting where help was needed, Google crisis maps geo-tagging locations where the storm has impacted a community, local government providing a volunteer sign up page, a popup site connecting volunteers with those who need help, New York based techies banding together to help businesses get up and running and hackers circulating a collaborative document to identify need and attempt to resolve it.

Daniel Husserl, an eco-entrepreneur whose factory in Red Hook was inundated with three feet of water, rose to the occasion to help others in need and started the SandyBaggers movement with a few other entrepreneurs.  “Almost immediately, SandyBaggers started to host volunteer events with specific goals based on specific needs. This was only possible because everyone was posting their needs on Twitter and Facebook,” he said.   Impressively, within four days SandyBaggers had over 900 likes on Facebook, had coordinated the distribution of over 4000 lbs of food and supplies, and had mobilized hundreds of volunteers through focused, on-the-ground volunteer Facebook events. “We set up SandyBaggers as movement for self-motivated citizens, not as a non-profit or an organization” said Husserl. “Simply put, we help do-ers do while completely avoiding red tape.”

It’s clear from Husserl’s example that social media tools were essential in avoiding red tape and disseminating information. Technology and the social platforms had their part to play, but as Deanna Zandt states in this powerful Forbes piece, they also had limitations. “There are cases where tech has been useful in organizing volunteers…but I can’t call those efforts a 100% success and congratulate them when I knocked on doors in the outage areas, and people didn’t know there was a free-supplies distribution center around the corner from their house. We relied too much on commercial communications tools, and it’s time to start implementing independent communications structures.”

Although technology has been paramount in coordinating volunteer efforts, it’s still the grassroots, door-to-door and neighbor-to-neighbor support that has been most effective. And while charities have raised millions of dollars to help in the efforts and are funding much of the relief, it’s the on-the-ground volunteers in neighborhoods like Red Hook, Brooklyn, Rockaway Beach and Manhattan’s Lower East Side that are helping to bring people what they need. Meanwhile, as documented in this compelling post by a business owner in Manhattan’s Alphabet City, neighbors – the physical community connected by geographical proximity – have been paramount. “Everyone is aware of the progress of every business on the block at this point: Every bad turn of events leads to an all-hands-on-deck reaction from neighbors, moving generators and pumps at a moment’s notice.”

It’s the people of New York, in coordination with The Red Cross, FEMA, and volunteers from across the USA, that are helping clean up Sandy.  And it’s through social media in many cases that they know where to apply their efforts. But these new ways to disseminate information can only go so far: they require people to act on them. Facebook may be key to spreading your message, but unless people act beyond a Like button, its usefulness is limited. Twitter can help too in publicize needs with impressive alacrity, and in this case was helpful in giving those outside of the affected area an insight into just how devastating Sandy had been, but a ReTweet alone will not feed your children or clean up your flooded basement.

Even though the Internet and its social tools have been immensely helpful at identifying needs and coordinating groups to service them post-Sandy, they can only go so far: In the end, it’s the acts of kindness from strangers and neighbors that are rebuilding the city.


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This entry was posted on November 12, 2012 by in Social media.
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