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Late last week the tweets started coming in about the tornado outbreak in the South. Weather geeks (including me) had earlier noted conditions were ripe for a significant outbreak. But, boy was I surprised by how bad it was.

It was most fascinating how fast I found the most up to date information –and you can’t get faster than real-time – on what was happening by using the generic hashtag #tornado.  I quickly found the beast that eventually wiped out parts of Tuscaloosa, Birmingham and other populated areas. @KimStephans wrote an excellent piece categorizing the types of information shared during the storms – Impending, It’s here, It’s gone, Time to fix things and recover (sorry Kim, editorial license here :) .

A main source for real time info I stumbled onto was Birmingham’s Fox 6 TV news. I’m sure other stations were tracking the disaster equally as well, but I thought they did a great job. Why you ask? A couple of things struck me;

1. They didn’t just talk about the danger and power of the approaching storm. They showed Tuscaloosa debris falling from the sky onto their station parking lot 20 minutes before the storm arrived to drive home the point this was an extremely powerful and deadly event, and those in its path better take it seriously. You can’t get more real than that.

2. They constantly reminded viewers in the storm path they could receive updates on the weather through their cell phones via the station’s text/twitter feeds and their smartphone applications, so those seeking shelter would know what was going on. They understand Twitter and smartphones are not the “end all” solution for messaging during disasters. We must keep in mind segments of our population don’t have easy access to gizmo smartphones or even internet. But, most folks have regular cell phones at a minimum, and can receive SMS messages relayed through Twitter and other feeds. It’s not rocket science, but does take some planning and willingness to pay for text messaging on your cell phone (beats a $30 data plan though!).

Once again, the power of social networks, social media and the ever increasing blending of traditional local news organizations and citizen reporting and engagement demonstrated the ability to communicate and motivate folks to take action. Heck, I even wanted to climb into a closet and I was 2000 miles away!

Another thought on this tragedy relates to intelligence gathering. With a IC mindset, I monitored twitter feeds to see what folks would be reporting once the storm passed.  Within minutes, citizens were reporting scenes of devastation that cannot be understood by watching a tower camera 5 miles away.  One of the first “Tweeporters” I found was @aaronsuttles, who caught my eye with the following posts shortly after the storm passed through Tuscaloosa;

Aaron’s posts later included photographs of the damage.  As an IC, this type of information can help me gain situational awareness of severity and resource needs.  From just a couple of his pictures, I noted responders were going to be dealing with;

  • Limited access to area (debris)
  • Disseminated utilities
  • No street signs (a big deal when all your regular local “landmarks” are wiped off the face of the earth)
  • Multiple injuries/deaths/entrapment
  • Resources going to be initially delayed
  • Citizen spontaneous rescues/searches will have to be managed
  • Gonna need a lot of equipment (especially chain saws and tires)

Aaron, along with thousands of others continues tweeting today, organizing and communicating relief efforts. Social media communities using Facebook, Google, Twitter and others are fully engaged in sending help where needed.

As I write this, I do so knowing the final chapter has yet to be written on this disaster. Hundreds of residents are still missing, with searches still underway.  It would not surprise me if last week’s storm system will end up being the most deadly in U.S. history.  Folks there are in my thoughts.

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About chiefb2

Retired fire chief,Type 3 AHIMT IC, PIO. Current industrial services safety professional, social media emergency management disciple (no, I'm not a "guru"). Crisis communications consultant. Dad with an open wallet.