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Internet played a big role in flood response

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Posted on September 12, 2011 |
By Andrea Suozzo



201108flood4951jpg.jpeg
BRANDON FIREFIGHTERS THOMAS Kilpeck and Eric LaRock keep an eye on floodwaters flowing down Route 7 in downtown Brandon Sunday. Photo by Lee Kahrs

VERMONT — As heavy rains and high winds from Tropical Storm Irene roared through Vermont on Aug. 28, local emergency teams, news outlets and state disaster management officials sought to keep up with incident after incident happening across the state.

But as roads washed out, power went down and travel throughout the state became increasingly difficult, Internet technology and social media stepped into the spotlight.

Stories about the storm flowed through mediums like Facebook and Twitter, and cell phone videos of road washouts and bridge collapses began to appear on YouTube just minutes after the incidents occurred. Gov. Peter Shumlin and other government offices released a constant stream of updates through social media, and within days people across the state began coordinating aid and response efforts through Facebook groups and websites.

As the storm bore down on the state on Aug. 28, Seth Beck of Bristol wasn’t aware that this was no average rainstorm until social media clued him in.

“Twitter was what first got me to realize that something was happening,” Beck said.

Later that week, after seeing the destruction wrought on his sister’s house in Waterbury, Beck sat down and developed the Vermont Relief Exchange (vtexchange.org) website, which he describes as “Craigslist for disasters.” The site allows people who visit the site to post lost and found items, as well as goods and services they need or are giving away to help those hurt by the flooding. Things on offer last week range from clothing and power tools to an apartment and a mobile home.

And by Sunday, Sept. 4, reports were just beginning to flood in for those keyed into social media — leaving national media coverage in the dust.

“It was pretty amazing how the stuff that I was seeing that night on Twitter showed up on MSNBC two days later,” said Beck.

Mark Bosma, public information officer for Vermont Emergency Management (VEM), said he set up a Facebook page for the organization two years ago, just as other emergency management offices around the country were beginning to experiment with distributing information through social media. Since then, Bosma said he has been posting updates and press releases every so often to a small number of followers.

“The Thursday before the storm, we had 800 followers,” Bosma said late last week. “Right now, we have 4,600.”

The page’s relevancy became imminently clear during the storm and the days following, and Bosma said he and the staff at VEM have gotten a crash course on using social media to manage information in an emergency.

“You put something out there in a press release and you don’t really know who sees it,” said Bosma. “With Facebook, we know we’re reaching a certain number of people, can get details on how many people have seen our posts — it’s been 1.3 million in the last week or so.”

And it wasn’t just handing out information — Bosma said he saw people reaching out to VEM, posting their questions, observations and concerns.

For their part, VEM staff made sure to have at least one person managing the Facebook page at all times, making sure that information was posted and questions were answered immediately.

Bosma said the organization will continue to use Facebook and Twitter, as well as media sharing sites like YouTube and Flickr, to distribute information.

Locally, the town of Middlebury was also posting regular updates to its own Facebook profile, and partway through the week following the storm the Middlebury Police Department set up its own Facebook page.

Officer Vegar Boe said it became clear that having a Facebook page would be a useful tool for direct communication with the community.

“We’d discussed having a Facebook page before,” said Boe. “Now just seemed like an opportune time to do so.”

RECOVERING WITH TECH

Recovery efforts have also formed around Facebook and websites set up in the immediate aftermath of Irene. After following the Twitter pages devoted to the flood, a group based in Burlington launched vtresponse.com, which coordinates efforts and requests for help — anything from calls for donations to offers to shovel basements or house displaced people and horses.

Beck said he was aware of the vtresponse.com site when he sat down to design vtexchange.org. He was hoping to create a direct way that people like his sister, who was flooded out of her house, could connect with the people across the state offering housing and donations.

“I thought it would be nice if there was a way to identify what was needed, and for people to identify what they could give,” he said.

So, though he’s a mechanical engineer by training, Beck sat down and built the site. Users post items anonymously in four categories: needed, giving, lost and found. From there, people visiting the site can connect with those who post.

The site went live on Sept. 2, and that Saturday Beck headed off to volunteer in Moretown.

“I left the house early and nothing much had happened to it yet,” said Beck. “But it got over 1,000 hits on its first day. When I got home there was just an inbox full of messages.”

This, he said, was due to the sheer number following recovery efforts on social media. He let the folks at vtresponse.com know about his site. Word of the site spread from there, and Beck said the tremendous outpouring of community support is what’s powered the website.

“What really makes it run is the Vermont community — otherwise it would just be a blank site,” said Beck.

Around 190 items had been posted for donation as of Friday, and 40 items had been requested. Beck said a Woodstock resident who was headed off to college had found a new laptop computer to replace the one that had gotten destroyed in the flooding. And a local resident saw that a woman in Rochester needed a raincoat and boots and dropped the donation at the Ripton General Store, where a Rochester resident picked them up and drove it the rest of the way to the woman in need.

“It’s been a pretty surreal experience overall,” said Beck, who added that between fixing issues on the site, moderating it, doing his day job and spending time with his family, he hadn’t gotten a full night’s sleep in a week.

“It definitely feels worthwhile, though,” said Beck. “It’s the least I can do, especially when you get out there and see some of the devastation.”

Others in the state have been mapping recovery efforts and updates — the state Agency of Transportation replaced its old online road closure map with a new and more frequently updated one that also includes town roads. That effort was aided by Google, and can be found at the AOT website, www.aot.state.vt.us.

And Bill Morris of Burlington created a map using open-source Ushahidi software, originally designed to help monitor elections in Kenya from a mobile phone. The system is designed so that reports are easy for anyone to submit, and so that a number of types of information can be displayed.

The map is online at vtirene.crowdmap.com, and though at first it included reports from vtresponse.com and user-submitted road closure information, people are also being asked to submit photographs of high-water marks from around the state. Jarlath O’Neill-Dunne is a research analyst at the University of Vermont’s Spatial Analysis Laboratory, and he and his students are working on cataloging and mapping information onto the public map. Because the flash flooding went down so quickly, user photographs will be instrumental in analyzing where the water went and how high it rose in some places.

“I know we’re going to be using it here for our research purposes,” said O’Neill-Dunne. “And the FEMA folks have been making use of it in their efforts.”

LIMITATIONS

But Tropical Storm Irene also emphasized the ongoing need  for multiple avenues of communication: Many isolated towns lost power, and some — like Granville and Hancock — have only limited cell phone service at the best of times. Bosma said emergency managers in those towns corresponded via radio, but the user-submitted reports on many of the response websites set up only recently — more than one week after the disaster — began to include requests for help and supplies in the isolated towns.

Beck said this makes it especially important that people realize they shouldn’t stop looking to give supplies and help just yet.

“Now that the cleanup is getting done, people shouldn’t think that it’s all over,” he said. “Especially now that we’re staring down winter in a month or so, there’s going to be a great need for help.”

But the disaster, said Tim Boutin, emergency management planner at the Addison County Regional Planning Commission, has pushed Vermont further into the digital age in emergency response.

Boutin said that over the past couple of weeks, he’s watched many across the state using the potential of broadband Internet and the mobile web to create and share resources in ways that had only been talked about in the state before.

“This is all stuff I’d hoped we could do at some point in the future,” he said.

Now, he said, it’s happening.

Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at andreas@addisonindependent.com.

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