Hurricane Sandy-The First Major Social Media Emergency?

by admin on October 27, 2012


Question: Will Hurricane Sandy be the first major social media emergency? Will widespread power outages and flooding force people to turn to social media for up-to-date information through portable devices? If so, how accurate will that information be?

(Reuters) – Louis Uccellini, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Centers for Environmental Prediction “…stopped short of calling Sandy possibly the worst storm to hit the U.S. Northeast in 100 years, as some weather watchers were doing, but said Sandy was shaping up to go down as a storm of “historic” proportions.”

As a former spokesperson for a state public safety agency that included emergency management and law enforcement , I handled major events including: Hurricane Katrina (at FEMA headquarters) 9-11 events, hurricanes, tornados, blizzards, plane crashes, community evacuations, the return of American hostages and endless news stories with major policy considerations.

I have expressed considerable skepticism regarding the ability of social media to convey accurate information during an emergency. Research suggests that there is considerable day-to-day misinformation via social media. I also suggested that social media during troubled times can cause more harm than good.

How Emergency Media Management Works:

The premise of emergency media management is accessing bad information through rumor control and mainstream media monitoring and providing accurate information. This is done by bringing all relevant agencies together in one place (an emergency management center) sharing real-time information and getting it out to the public.

The problem is that the emergency management community has no experience dealing with social media during a multi-day and multi-state event. The same community doesn’t have the capacity to monitor social media channels so it won’t know what’s being said. The same applies to mainstream media.

Question: If there are thousands or tens of thousands of reports via social media about dams about to break or gas leaks or massive flooding (that aren’t true) and tens of thousands of people react (by getting out of harm’s way) and all this movement massively taxes our infrastructure, how can government and private agencies like the Red Cross do its job?

I was at FEMA headquarters for Hurricane Katrina for one week. Most media inquiries I handled involved questions that ranged from the silly to the absurd, all based on rumor or inaccurate information. Now we’re going to add social media to the mix?

Please let me make one thing clear; I love social media and I believe that the future of communications is social. I also believe that social media will be an integral part of the next major emergency in the US and we need to know how to handle it.

Five points to consider:

The  scenario that concerns me  is a multi-day event rapidly taking place in multiple places (think Katrina or coordinated acts of terrorism).

Emergency public affairs responders will be taxed to the limit as to keeping up with “mainstream” media and getting the word out to the public.

Processing millions of social media comments is simply beyond the ability of any organization.

It’s inevitable that there will be thousands of misinformed or malicious posts.

Government and nonprofit public affairs response capabilities are being cut, not expanded.

Comments from previous articles on social media and emergencies–four threads:

I’ve written repeatedly about the use of social media during major emergencies. There were lots of responses to my articles in a variety of forums.

First: Some suggested that social media automatically corrects bad information based on reports from mainstream media. Well, that assumes that mainstream media is monitoring social media and setting the record straight.

For those not in the business let me assure you that newsrooms have undergone cuts of 30 percent and more during the last ten years. Like government and nonprofits, they are doing more with less.

There is research from Pew that media do not read and respond to their own social media posts.  Essentially, for the media, it’s a one-way form of communication.

Second: Others agree with me that it’s a major problem in search of a solution.

Third: Some took me to task (very nicely) about the public affairs community’s reluctance to engage in social media which may have some validity “but” it’s not due to indifference, it’s due to staffing.

Fourth: Still others feel that the social media community will be a plus and my concerns are greatly overblown.  So that assumes that everyone with a Facebook account has everyone’s best interest in mind?  No people with mental illness, no sex offenders, no one engaged in fraud? Please!


The best solution came from one commenter who suggested that FEMA or a corporate entity create a social media response structure solely dedicated to analyzing social media traffic, distilling the basic messages (i.e., thousands are urging people in Happy Valley to flee because of an impending dam break) and getting the information to the public affairs team so they can correct misinformation or confirm good information.

Does anyone believe that in this day and age of budget cuts that FEMA can develop this capacity?  FEMA doesn’t have the funds necessary to staff hundreds of tech and social media savvy people in one place and administer the communications process.


Social media “will” be a major ingredient during the next major emergency.  We are “not” prepared for the consequences. Any other suggestions?

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Best, Len.

For previous articles on the emergency social media, see

Article on the dilemma of the media depending on information from social media, see

Reuters article:


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