What If Hurricane Katrina Happened In 2011?

March 16, 2011

The bulletin board at the Houson Astrodome where people left notes and messages, looking for family members and friends who fled New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina

Writer’s Note: During Hurricane Katrina, I worked for the American Red Cross at the headquarters in Washington D.C. I worked in the communications department on online outreach, but also deployed during disasters such as Katrina to support public affairs and serve as a spokesperson. While the experience causes me to contemplate Katrina, this blog post isn’t about the Red Cross and my opinions solely belong to me.

As I’ve watch the tragedy in Japan unfold, I’m reminded of the last massive disaster in the United States: Hurricane Katrina.

Recall 2005. Twitter didn’t exist. Facebook was a college-only site, not the size of the third largest country in the world. Blogging was alive and well, but search wasn’t real time. Blackberries were popular in the workplace, but the proliferation of smartphones hadn’t occurred in the United States.

Online word of Katrina and the devastating results spread through traditional news sites, forums, forwarded emails, blogs, etc. Digital curation wasn’t happening on a large level. Citizen journalism wasn’t nearly as widespread. CNN’s iReport didn’t exist.

When residents affected by Katrina wanted to register for help, they called a 1-800 number or filled out an online report. Call lines filled quickly and websites crashed.

Flash forward to the Haiti earthquake and tools such as Ushahidi were used to crowdsource emergency data submitted by mobile phone and social sites. Twitter trends increased visibility around crucial issues.

The Japanese earthquake and tsunami filtered with the memories of Katrina has led me to wonder how the next major disaster in the United States will be shared and how government, residents, neighbors and relief agencies will respond.

While it’s easy to wax poetic on the immediacy of social media and the revolutionary tools that invite instant communication and a two-way conversation, much work stands between this concept and an actual disaster response.

Think about how you would react in a disaster situation? Would you post your situation on Facebook? Would you tweet for help? Have you already used social media during a disaster such as the recent blizzards?

How do expect the government and non-profits to respond to what you post on your personal social media profile? Would you post it for public dissemination or to alert your personal circle? How would you publicly reach out for help?

Interestingly, a recent survey by the American Red Cross shows that 74 percent of people expect assistance within an hour of sharing an emergency situation via a social media channel. Is this a reasonable expectation?

One last question to ponder: If you were physically removed from the disaster, how do you share information about the disaster? Do you share personal stories? Do you only share official information? How do you verify the information you receive? Do you only share information from people within your trusted circle or would you share a personal story from someone you don’t know (assuming that they’d post only accurate information)?

I’d love to hear your thoughts as I ponder this; I really don’t know what I would do.

Footnote: Yesterday, Sandra posted a summary of how to help survivors of the Japan earthquake and tsunami. Please check it out and add in the comments how you’ve shared.