Katie Benner is normally a writer for Fortune, but after Hurricane Sandy, she half-jokes, "I'm going to be the relief yenta." Her Tumblr, Sandy Sucks, helps hook people up, but not for romance: It offers daily lists of ways anyone can chip into the hurricane relief effort, thus connecting those in need with those who want to help. It's one of many ways social media users have stepped up to the massive informational challenge posed by the storm.
Sandy has seen one of the most extensive social media responses of any American disaster, and volunteers' use of various social media platforms revealed their power — and their limitations — as tools of disaster relief.
Immediately after the hurricane, two things were apparent: immense devastation and human suffering, and an intense desire to help relieve it. The weekend after the storm, as thousands remained without power or surveyed the wreckage of their homes, volunteers were pouring in to affected areas as well. The Brooklyn Donor Center's time slots for blood donations filled up; a sign-up sheet for volunteers at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope quickly overflowed with names. Communicating the quickly changing needs of storm-ravaged neighborhoods to the various organizations and individuals eager to help turned out to be a challenge — but one to which savvy volunteers swiftly rose.
Benner points out that before the storm, many of us had become a bit spoiled when it came to getting information at the tap of a touchscreen: "We're kind of used to being able to go online and get what we need easily," she says. Post-Sandy, that wasn't always possible — even if you were lucky enough to have power, information about storm relief was a bit decentralized. Local blogs and national news organizations (including BuzzFeed) had lists of ways to help, and relief organizations from Occupy Sandy to the Red Cross maintained Web presences, but the sheer amount of information and its decentralized nature could be overwhelming to a would-be volunteer.
Benner wanted to create a one-stop shop: "I wanted people to be able to go on and have the first post be 'three to ten things I can do today.'" And she wanted Sandy Sucks to be "something people can use no matter what their day-to-day lives look like." Those with free time could find volunteer opportunities, but those stuck in offices could get recommendations of places to donate, petitions to sign, or useful articles about the storm. Benner started Sandy Sucks on November 8, and within four days it had gotten 3,000 unique visitors.
Others are using social media to directly coordinate volunteers. A group of New Yorkers started the Red Hook/Rockaway Recovery Facebook page as a kind of dispatching hub and message board to send volunteers to flood-damaged neighborhoods. Co-organizer Ian Colletti says Facebook isn't ideal, but for now "it's something that everyone checks and something that everyone can refer to, and you can post chronologically." Recent posts include a message about a donation drop-off location in Greenpoint, and a car leaving Williamsburg for the Rockaways with space for volunteers.
Colletti says Facebook's limitations on newsfeeds mean Red Hook/Rockaway Recovery's posts reach fewer users than he'd like, but adds that Facebook's user-tagging feature has been useful — by tagging known volunteers in posts, Red Hook/Rockaway Recovery can make sure they see them.
Occupy Wall Street has been one of the most active groups volunteering on the ground post-Sandy, and it's been one of the most engaged on social media as well. Its main Occupy Sandy Twitter account has 10,000 followers and subsidiary Twitter accounts focus on housing aid and specific volunteer hubs. It's now also affiliated with a text-message system, called Occupy SMS, which links up volunteers with those who need aid.
Stephanie H. Shih started Occupy SMS (which didn't start out as an Occupy project but has now linked up with Occupy efforts) after she and a friend went to the Rockaways with a generator and a sump pump to help pump out flooded houses. But no one had been able to make a database or list of houses that were flooded, so they had to go door-to-door and ask. Says Shih, "Finding people who need your help when you are offering this highly sought-after resource for free shouldn't be this difficult or inefficient."
Now volunteers can text Occupy SMS with their willingness to work (by texting MUTUAL AID to 69866), and people who need help can send in requests as well (by texting SANDY to the same number). The system then matches them up. With Occupy SMS, says Shih, "you don't need to ask someone 'in charge' what addresses need help. You can help yourself help someone else."
Shih cautions that social media is far from a panacea. Power and Internet service are still down in many areas affected by the storm, and for a while, cell service was affected as well: "If the people who are in need and the volunteers on-site can't access your tool, how can it help them?"
Like some familiar with recovery after Hurricane Katrina, Shih says any successful relief effort needs to include the contributions of people actually affected by the disaster. "Someone recently showed me an iPhone app for volunteers and aid workers to enter needs and help requests, but there was no way for residents to request aid themselves. That kind of thinking views people in affected areas as victims who need help and is dangerous."
And she's wary of any effort to develop generalized systems, technological or otherwise, for disaster relief, since conditions on the ground can vary so widely: "I've been shocked to see how different areas and people in the same city could be affected by the same storm in such disparate ways. ... Disasters aren't one-size-fits-all."