• The social media storm
    November 05,2012

    Looking at pictures from my friends in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and other hard-hit areas from Hurricane Sandy breaks my heart. It reminds me of what it was like to sit in front of my computer watching Tropical Storm Irene wreak havoc through my beautiful state of Vermont. I feel for anyone who has to experience the devastation a storm like that can bring.

    I am also feeling incredibly thankful. I am thankful that for the most part, Vermont escaped the wrath of Sandy. But I am even more thankful for the communication and preparedness that our state showed.

    I believe that our leaders led with a high level of preparation, communication and professionalism. This especially includes the decision to close schools for two days. I shudder at the thought of Irene happening on a weekday, unexpectedly, and our children being in school. I do not have children, but I don’t think I would want to be separated from them during a natural disaster. I would much rather know that my family is safe with me then not have power or be trapped without them. (Which is exactly what happened to me during Irene – my husband could not get home to me and I had to evacuate.)

    Posts by Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras on Facebook specifically about the storm started on Oct. 25. From there, he consistently updated and informed the public with much needed information, both from preparedness, planning and what to do if you needed to evacuate.

    He let us know that our first responders were ready. Department of Public Works cleaned out gutters multiple times over the course of the weekend to help prevent flooding. Emergency shelters were established and manned to ensure that people knew where to go before they lost power. I know all of this because of the completely effective job he did of keeping us informed through his Facebook page.

    Other great Facebook pages to follow during this time were the Rutland Herald, WCAX, Rutland City Police Department, City of Rutland Fire Department, WPTZ and Vermont Flooding 2011. Being one of the coordinators for Restoring Rutland and the main administrator for the page, I would hope that we were effective and helpful, but cannot say so objectively.

    I do need to shift gears, though. Sandy uncovered something else about social media. It showed that some people are rotten. Maybe they unknowingly retweeted or shared fake photos, but people claiming to have taken a dramatic shot during the storm, were thankfully quickly disproven (stock photos, photoshopped pictures, and stolen stock images were all the culprits).

    Digging further, this happens during every major weather event. And some of these pictures, such as one of a shark swimming in the street, are reused time and time again, claiming to be taken in a different place.

    Twitter, which can typically be a light and often sarcastic medium, turned serious very quickly as Sandy bore down. What ended up happening was a beautiful mix of mass media and citizen turned autobiographical journalists, tweeting their story through words, pictures and video.

    Through Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, I was able to know what was happening outside my home, throughout Vermont, and everywhere Sandy was headed. I was easily able to check on my friends in the most affected areas and see how they were holding up, much as I did during Irene.

    Just like the fake photos, however, some thought-to-be-trusted sources shared completely false information, claiming, for example, that rising waters had trapped New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. These false reports were also thwarted and cleared up.

    Still going through the process ourselves, we know that the next step is recovery. Many Vermonters are now looking to give back and help those who Sandy hurt. Vermonters know that many all over the country gave so selflessly after Irene, that they want to return the favor. Please be careful to whom you send money.

    Only send money to organizations that have a 501(c)(3) status or a trusted fiscal agent. (You can check non-profit status online at: apps.irs.gov/app/eos). Although I co-founded an ad-hoc organization post-Irene last year, you have to be careful to vet the group and make sure they are a legitimate and trustworthy.

    VTResponse, which started during the moments Irene was bearing down on us, has proven to be a great resource for donations, volunteer opportunities and education. To find out how you can directly help those affected, visit their website at vtresponse.wordpress.com. They also continue to report on the yet-to-be-met needs post-Irene.

    Restoring Rutland is still figuring out how we can best help. Please continue to follow us at restoringrutland.org, facebook.com/restoringrutland, and @RestoringRut on Twitter.

    I would love to tell you that social media is the place to be. But as a mainly user-generated medium, you have to take what you read and view with a grain of salt. You need to sort out information that is doubtful (a shark swimming in the street is too unbelievable to be real) and the information that you can trust. Social media is the fastest way to receive this information, which can in some cases, only hurt it.

    Follow Katye Robare Munger on Twitter @localsocialvt.

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