Slogging, and Blogging, Through Katrina

By Kaye D. Trammell
Saturday, September 3, 2005

BATON ROUGE, La. -- When people prepare for hurricanes, they do many things: top off gas tanks in cars, fill bathtubs with water, buy water, charge up mobile phones and check evacuation routes. I did all these things. And I started a blog.

Hearing that Hurricane Katrina was making her way to Louisiana, I started the blog to keep my loved ones updated about my safety. Even though I have been through many hurricanes, this would be the first I would go through alone. Why not just leave? I thought I had to work on Tuesday.

I didn't naively assume that the audience for Kaye's Hurricane Katrina Blog was limited to my loved ones; I knew others might be interested in my "coverage." Even so, I blogged my account in a very personal way.

Within hours my readership expanded from my family in Florida, Kansas and Texas to people in Israel, Germany and across the United States. With A-list blogs (whose audiences rival those of small weeklies) linking to my site, the word that I was blogging the storm spread quickly.

As the storm approached, it was never a question of whether power would go out but when and for how long. I knew that silence would cause concern. I soon discovered that I could continue my humble dispatches from my BlackBerry, which could transfer data, though no calls could come in.

Blogging offers many things to users of the technology. In the case of my blog, my readers were able to get firsthand accounts of the storm and know that I was weathering it safely.

My own motivations changed through the day. I was without power, sitting alone in my dark apartment with winds howling all around me. My blog was the only thing keeping me calm. It connected me to people out there waiting for my next post. These people were talking back to me, feeding me information from the outside world about what was happening. Even though this was my first hurricane "alone," it was also my first in which I was comforted by thousands from around the world.

The blog helped loved ones of those directly affected by Katrina know what was happening, allowing them to put the media coverage into context. From "stringers" reporting updates of specific damaged areas to notes of support from around the world, blogs like mine provided a cathartic release for those seeking information on this crisis.

These blogs no longer belong to the blogger but to the community, as a centralized mechanism for communication and comfort in the face of natural disaster. They amend the coverage in several ways.

First, they are an alternative viewpoint from which one can learn about the situation. Turn on the news and see reporters pelted by the storm. Open newspapers to find pictures of Katrina. Or get direct access to a living room inside the storm and live through it by reading a blogger's account.

Second, bloggers cover a larger geographical area, reporting more quickly than journalists. Imagine TV news without the set-up time and news production process: That's how quickly bloggers can disseminate information.

We on-the-scene citizens don't mean to replace journalism. We don't have the resources. But we can provide first-person accounts in our own voices of what is happening.

Because blogs are so easy to create, they will only grow in number, and many will be covering crises in this personal way. Now that bloggers have figured out how to use the medium, it's time for government officials to do the same.

Rex Hammock and Josh Hallett, two other bloggers, point out that this new breed of emergency blogs should become another outlet for official information. How can cities and governments work blogs into their emergency response plans? Why not talk to local bloggers and set up a plan to share information with them? If the danger is that blogs spread rumors, then shouldn't officials shut the potential rumor mill down by sharing bulletins with influential bloggers?

Those who start blogs like mine do it for many reasons, but I am confident that the motivation for blogging changes as readership increases. We understand that we are trusted sources for firsthand information and want nothing more than to provide factual accounts of what is happening.

Blogging will not change the world in crisis, but it will make it more human.

The writer is an assistant professor in the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. During Hurricane Katrina she blogged her experiences athttp://hurricaneupdate.blogspot.com/. Her e-mail address istrammell@lsu.edu.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company