Radio, what? Smartphones, Social Media Used for Tornado Info

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While battery-operated radios are recommended by all emergency services for use during a major storm, a smartphone with access to Facebook and Twitter helped many Raleighites get information during Saturday’s tornado.

“Twitter was great for updates and was my main source of news during the storm,” said Jason Hibbets, who lives about a mile east of where the twister hit South Saunders Street and Maywood Avenue.

Hibbets lost power just before 4 p.m. and turned to his smartphone, which had an active Internet connection. “If my phone wasn’t working, I would have dug out the battery-powered radio,” he said.

Despite being so close to the area of destruction, Hibbets said he was still unaware that the tornado had hit until a friend called to make sure he was okay. To verify that a tornado had hit his area, he sent out a message to his own friends and followers for a real-time response.

Real-time updates were how North Raleigh resident, Melissa Bixler, became aware of the impending storm while she was at a Carolina Roller Girls roller derby at the fairground’s Dorton Arena with her family and some friends.

Bixler began to see posts on Facebook about the storm, which at the time was passing through Stanford.

“In a few minutes’ time, 15 to 20 posts in my newsfeed were about the storm,” she said, adding that she had started to see posts talking about the storm in Holly Springs and Fuquay-Varina. “So that made it really real.”

As the storm grew closer, derby attendees were ushered from their seats into an underground tunnel while they waited for more information. As she and her husband crouched over their son, they monitored their iPhones for updates. She said other adults, while trying to keep their children calm, watched not only for storm news updates, but used the radar to find out where the tornado was hitting.

“I probably would have told my whole story about the storm if my battery had been charged,” she said.

While Bixler was with her family when the tornado passed through Raleigh, Camden Watts was volunteering at the Full Frame Film Festival in Durham. Her sister gave Watts the news that a tree had gone through the roof of their home.

“It’s a really scary thing to know that your family and friends aren’t safe,” said Watts. “And you’re too far away to do anything to help.”

Despite damage to her sister’s house, her family was okay.

Watts said volunteers monitored the weather using smartphones and informed festival goers of weather updates on Twitter by using the film festival’s hashtag, #fullframe. Hashtags (the number sign) are used on Twitter so that people interested in the same thing can follow tweets about that topic, such as #nctornado or #raleightornado.

Now that the tornado is over and the cleanup effort is beginning, Watts said she is using social media to keep track of the damage and ways to help. She said that by Sunday, a group of 30 people volunteered to help the cleanup effort.

“It also helps mobilize people quickly,” Watts said of social media. “If that’s the tool they’re using.”

Social media helped play a roll in collecting donations for Jeremy Smith, whose house was flattened in the tornado.

“To the best of my knowledge, there is no other medium that could have triggered a unified and passionate response with so many people in such a short amount of time,” said Chris Moody one of Smith’s supporters.

Moody said that with the help of dedicated people and social media, $1,400 was raised in a matter of hours.

Residents weren’t the only ones using social media to receive and broadcast information. Progress Energy began using their Twitter account to disseminate information during the early reports of a storm. Progress Energy spokesman Scott Sutton said they provided emergency tips and heavily promoted the number to call to report a power outage.

Sutton said that from the start, Progress Energy warned customers that if there were outages, they would likely take days to repair so that people could be prepared for a long period of time without power. After the storm, the company quickly began updating followers on the status repairs and when users would likely see their power go back on.

On Facebook, Progress Energy posted photos of hard hit areas as a reminder to customers that they were working in the areas with the highest need first.

“It helps people see the bigger picture,” Sutton said. “We try to put a more human tone to what can be a faceless utility.”

For Bixler, social media provided information that she wouldn’t have received otherwise. She was out at a sporting event and away from a radio and television.  While the casual acquaintances she has on Facebook weren’t calling her to warn her of an impending storm, those connections proved useful.

“I was getting info from people that I never would have never been able to get info from without Facebook,” she said.

4 thoughts on “Radio, what? Smartphones, Social Media Used for Tornado Info

  1. Great story. I actually blogged about the same subject this morning as well! )

    It’s amazing to think of how far we’ve come, in terms of how quickly we can access information. Sometimes it can be a bit overwhelming – and then at other times (like last Saturday), it’s obviously incredibly helpful.

  2. An unfortunate side affect of smartphones is that it turned too many people into storm chasers.

  3. It all sounds good . . but we need to remember that when the weak “digital” TV signal was mandated . . we lost the strong “analog” signal . . which means in times of crisis like last Saturday we lost connection to TV warnings. I have a battery powered TV . . which is now worthless . . . because I can not hook up a “converter box” to it because the “converter” box needs power!!! Yeah, yeah . . maybe we have taken a couple steps forward . . but how many steps did we lose in the process????

  4. I live in Lockwood, one of the Raleigh neighborhoods devastated by the tornado. I had been resisting getting a smartphone, but the day after the storm the first thing I did was go to the store and get one. It’s been absolutely essential in dealing with the aftermath … especially since Time Warner’s cable service is still out and thus I have no TV or internet connection.