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By Nick Wakeman

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Nick Wakeman

Hurricane Florence and the power of social media

Over the last week I’ve been living through the promise of social media’s power to communicate and inform.

Two years ago, my wife and I bought a beach house in North Carolina. And when Hurricane Florence established its track, our house at Topsail Beach was right in the bull’s eye.

Emails and phone calls helped get the house ready. Our renters cut short their vacation and evacuated, then a contractor arrived to board up the windows.

Then the waiting began. We hope that this will one day be our retirement home, so the waiting was a bit stressful. I was getting alerts on Twitter and Facebook and through the FEMA app as well as emails from NOAA and the National Weather Service.

We have other friends and family that either live or have homes on the barrier island so group texts started circulating as well as notices of postings on Twitter and Facebook. I was probably tagged more in four days than I had been over the last four years on Facebook.

As we saw the storm start to hit the coast, I was checking my connection to the house through our Nexia system, which allows us to remotely control the locks, HVAC and water heater. When the connection was lost, I knew the power was out at the house.

The Twitter and Facebook alerts came fast and furious starting Thursday night to the point that I turned off the ringer on my phone. But I was still glad to be getting them.

Facebook became my go-to-source of information. A couple of the local restaurants and hotels posted photos from their businesses. One showing a scary amount of water rushing by their door. They joked that their swimming pool had been expanded.

The owner of a restaurant also was relaying information from the local police and town office about conditions. Eventually the town started posting information on their Facebook page, but in the beginning many of us relied on the Facebook page of the Beach Shop and Grill.

Several spontaneous Facebook groups popped up where strangers shared photos and bits of news they had heard about road closures and areas of damage. The Facebook Live feature got heavy use. I especially found the sessions by the National Hurricane Center to be very valuable.

It has been remarkable to me how accurate so much of the posts from individuals were. Sure there were few unfounded rumors but they were quickly corrected by others. Most of those reports had to do with fishing piers being wiped out. Nearly all of those reports turned out to be false.

There was a significant amount of crowdsourcing that went on as well. A photo would be posted and it wouldn’t be quite clear where it was and soon several people would be chiming in. Sometimes people would post before and after shots to confirm a location or amount of damage.

After the storm cleared, one local TV station flew a helicopter over several islands, including Topsail and posted the hour long raw footage. But you could watch for your house and hit pause and get a pretty clear shot. That was the first real confirmation that our house was OK. NOAA also released satellite imagery as well.

The island is opening back up Thursday morning to owners and residents. I’ll be heading down Saturday to get inside the house. I saw a few missing shingles so I hope that doesn’t mean we have a leak. But even if we do, I know we are very fortunate. Our dunes didn’t breach. In fact, our stairs to the beach are still intact. It doesn’t look like we had any issues with flooding at the house. So I’m feeling very lucky. I know others were not.

It has been a concrete lesson for me about the power of social media and communication technologies, but also how important it is for governments at all levels to communicate. NOAA and the National Hurricane Center were great. FEMA’s app was good but mostly repeated what NOAA and the National Weather Service were putting out. I’m sure if I had significant damage the app would be more helpful with filing and tracking claims.

I was disappointed in how long it took the local government to get on the social media bandwagon, but they got on board pretty quickly.

The sharing of information among strangers was impressive and not something I had really experienced before.

I’ll be curious to see if any lasting connections were made. And hopefully, this is our one hurricane for the year. I know it won’t be our last and I’ll be better prepared next time.

Posted by Nick Wakeman on Sep 19, 2018 at 12:55 PM

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