Tottenville, a blue-collar neighborhood at the southernmost point of Staten Island, suffered some of the worst flooding as a result of Hurricane Sandy. So on Nov. 4, scores of volunteers met at the intersection of Hylan and Yetman in the beleaguered area. They split into smaller groups and walked door to door through the damp, debris-filled streets, helping some 125 people pull waterlogged furniture and moldy drywall from their homes, according to community organizer Fred Forzione.
An effort of that scope might typically spring from a big, name-brand organization like the Red Cross. But “Rebuild Staten Island” was organized by Forzione -- and his Facebook page that has helped hundreds of families and thousands of “friends” impacted by Hurricane Sandy.
Local Facebook users searching for news or information ended up by the thousands on Forzione’s page, “Rebuild Staten Island.” And Forzione only created the page after searching for Staten Island news himself and finding the results wanting.
The page shares information like local news articles and donation sites, but perhaps more importantly, rebroadcasts calls for volunteers and emergency supplies to an audience of almost 14,000 — and growing.
On Staten Island in particular, Facebook and Twitter users united by little more than a hashtag began to coalesce into active groups. #SIRecovers and #SIOpen were the first, with thousands of tweets over the course of the storm. “More cleaning supplies needed at Mt. Loretto at 6581 Hylan Blvd,” reads one typical message. “Plenty of blankets available at 900 Richmond Rd for pick up,” reads another.
The amorphous online audience has responded to such specific calls or the more general ones Forzione made to organize people in Tottenville on Nov. 4 and every Saturday since. He estimates that they cleaned out some 140 houses during the first volunteer day alone and helped a total of more than 650 families. Occupy Sandy, the recovery effort of New York’s so-called Occupy movement, has seen great success with its Internet-based crowdsourcing too, says Daphne Carr, the 34-year-old graduate student who runs social media for the Staten Island branch.
In the week after the storm, an Occupy kitchen in Sunset Park was serving upwards of 10,000 meals a day, its volunteers recruited through social media. The movement has signed on more than 15,000 volunteers through the web.
“Everything we do is social-network oriented,” Carr says. “Social media is non-hierarchical, grassroots, open – it’s an incredible way to assess what’s going on and to get resources on the ground.”
Many community organizers and emergency managers agree. The Federal Emergency Management Agency already uses social media to crowdsource information. A FEMA spokesman, reached by phone, said the agency actively monitored Twitter during Hurricane Sandy for rumors and “situational awareness,” like what areas were flooding or where power was out. The Red Cross also took social media seriously during the storm; according to Fast Company, a team of 23 Red Cross staffers and volunteers monitored more than 2.5 million Sandy-related posts, tagging 4,500 for on-the-ground follow-up.
Social media’s most dramatic impact, however, could be among communities like Carr’s and Forzione’s – the neighborhoods and local governments that can muster more significant resources with the help of the social web.
One start-up, Recovers.org, is already investing in the future of crowdsourced disaster-recovery. The platform operates as an enclosed, single-purpose social network and gives communities the ability to post blog-like updates, tweets and emergency information next to submission forms for victims and volunteers. The site, mostly untested before Sandy, deployed in four New York City neighborhoods after the storm.
Chief operating officer Chris Kuryak sees a strong future for the platform: “It has really quickly become a place where people know they can go to volunteer and donate,” he says, citing high traffic numbers from after the storm. Organizations like the MIT Public Service Center and the Knight Foundation have also bet on Recovers.org’s future.
Neighbors have always come together to help each other out. But when they come together on Twitter or Facebook, their help can sometimes echo farther and faster than it might have offline, now that fast-twitch communications networks are available on social media.