Superstorm Sandy, Municipal Websites, and Social Media

Computer Monitor- Update!

It feels horrible to talk about the importance of social-media-as-lifeline during natural disasters, especially as so many have lost everything and so many more are sitting in the darkened cold, lacking the most essential comforts such as food, heat, showers, and light.  I’m certain that Facebook and Twitter are the least of the survivors’ worries.  Yet here we are.

Many have said that social media covered Sandy in a way that had never been seen before.  This of course is not true.  September 11th started it and the presence of social media has been a constant from Katrina through the present day.  What has changed is the number of broadcasters, content creators, syndicators, channels of distribution, and the sheer size of the audience, in both those directly affected by events and those watching from a distance.

While Sandy pounded the coasts there was a great hunger for news.  This has exponentially increased as the clouds and water recedes.  Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook all played a part in showing the devastation, spreading (and debunking rumors), and relaying both official information and personal experiences.

When I looked at the types of information being shared about particular municipalities, it mainly consisted of utility communications (outages and restorations), travel bans, service advisories, and requests for conditions of particular areas.  This particular storm was likely problematic as shore point residences are often vacation homes or rental properties.  This is not to say that there were not people who (foolishly) decided to ‘ride-out’ the storm in their permanent residences, but it many cases the home and homeowner were separated.  For many people their first glimpses of the savage destruction was through social media. NOAA has updated storm imagery, but it lacks the visceral impact and detailed information the heartbroken are seeking.

So, what role should your municipalities website play in your crisis management plan?

Here is a list of specifications and requirements to help you plan out your municipality website in terms of use and capabilities, particularly with regards to emergency situations:

  • Off-Site Hosting:  I can’t imagine that a small municipality would choose to have a webserver running on someone’s desktop or in a closet in this era, but I suppose it is possible.  Your site should be run offsite with dedicated power and backups occurring regularly.
  • In case of emergency, EOM content should take precedence over marketing and tourist information.  This is easily done through dedicated landing pages.  For a resort town, you might want three pages – one for emergencies, one for the off-season, and one for the tourist season.
  • Social Media Optimization (SMO):  All content on your sites should promote easy one-to-few click sharing via social media like Facebook and Twitter as well as easy forwarding via email.
  • Federated search:  So many sites – particularly those running on Joomla and Drupal seem to have degraded search capacities.  It’s crucial to ensure that your content is discoverable by both onsite search and via external search engines like Google.
  • Search Engine Optimization (SEO):  As I worked my way up the coast via Google Maps, I was astounded by the number of municipalities where a Google search for the municipality by name did not return the website for said municipality on the first page.  The first page of results was full of real estate, Chamber of Commerce, and government marketing sites, and not the governmental sites.  This is reflective of the emphasis placed on governing.  Administrators need to make sure that they are following best practices regarding SEO.
  • Subscribe to updates via email and SMS or TXT:  Your sites should have a widget on the front page and a dedicated landing page where residents can sign up for email and text message alerts from your emergency management vendor of choice (such as Constant Contact, Ready.gov, Nixle and others).
  • Low-bandwidth and mobile friendly themes for phones and tablets:  Keep in mind that during weather emergencies with power disruptions that hard wired internet access will quite possibly be offline due to down wires.  It’s also possible that cell service may be interupted, but the presence of backup generators on cell tower cites may mean that this communications lifeline might still be operable.  Make certain that your website vendor auto-detects and renders for mobile devices.
  • Sticky content: Some information is more important than others.  Make sure that your platform allows you to feature important content via a ‘sticky’ or other prominent placement.
  • Updates from other sources:  You might want to import content (in a widget or sidebar) from Federal, State, County, or neighboring municipalities on an ongoing basis.  You may also want to share content from local news providers.
  • Share updates from third-parties like weather services, news organizations, law enforcement agencies, and other local, state, regional, and Federal authorities.
  • Rapidly respond and debunk rumors
  • Identify information stewards, determine decision makers and points, and consolidate communication.
  • Collect important but not emergency information (information that falls beneath the 911 criteria).  A popular vendor – for after the storm – is See Click Fix.

Height of the Storm

I would expect most people were watching local or cable news coverage and the social media streams of impacted friends and family.  That said, I regret not having visited the websites of the various towns during the storm, but I was otherwise engaged with my own emergency response.

Examples of Municipalities Doing It Right

As a Philadelphia native who feels affinity towards the southern shore points (which by the luck of the draw were not as impacted as the more-northern New Jersey and New York shore points), I’ve worked my way up the coast from Cape May looking at the various local and state wide municipal and government websites.

  • The Borough of Lavallette: This is probably my favorite of all sites.  It’s a simple HTML page, with content posted in reverse chronological order, just like the oldest and simplest of blogs.  The most interesting aspect is that the local government photographed many of the properties and posted them as galleries by street, taking care of the curiousity of residents in finding out the condition of their properties
  • ReadyNJ: NJ’s Office of Emergency Management took their content for Sandy and posted it on Posterous.  I’m guessing their rational was ease-of-use and robust hosting.  I suppose their is some concern after the fact with archiving and “Sunshine Laws”, but in a pinch its a good idea.
  • Borough of Avalon: Avalon has a prominently featured list of updates on the ceneter of their page.  They also have a dedicated emergency site and URL.
  • Ocean City, NJ: OCNJ has a prominently placed slide-show with links to third-party resources like FEMA.
  • Can Do | AC: Atlantic City’s Tumblr does a good job highlighting the recovery of the casino town.

Websites Before the Storm.  Way Before the Storm.

There are a good number of shore points with web sites stuck in time somewhere in the late-1990s.  It is rather petty to point out that AOL email addresses, nested tables as design elements, and a hodge-podge of animated gifs are less than contemporary, but there it is.  Each municipality has an opportunity to rebuild their towns and show off their recovery by telling their story online.