East Coast earthquake cements role of social media in government crisis communications

At approximately 1:51:04 ET today, a magnitude 5.8 earthquake 3.7 miles below Virginia rattled the east coast of the United States from South Carolina to Maine.

A 3D map of the earthquake from DC-based DevelopmentSeed, embedded below, visualizes the intensity of the tremblor.

Thankfully, today’s earthquake does not appear to have caused any deaths nor collapsed buildings or bridges, although the National Cathedral sustained what officials call “substantial earthquake damage.” Longer term earthquake damage in DC will take time to assess. Eric Wemple has a comprehensive assessment of earthquake coverage that includes links to more logistical details and assessments, if you’re interested.

A reminder to prepare

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate talked directly to the public over the Internet, using his Twitter account, emphasizing that this quake is a reminder to get prepared.

He also highlighted a critical resource for an increasingly mobile citizenry, m.fema.gov/earthquake, and hurricanes.gov, which will be an important source of information as Hurricane Irene moves up the coast.

Additionally, Govfresh founder Luke Fretwell compiled an excellent short federal government primer to earthquake preparedness that’s full of more resources, including what to do before, during and after an earthquake

Key earthquake information can be found at Ready.gov and the FEMA, USGS and Centers for Disease Control Websites. USGS also provides a seven-step Protecting Your Family From Earthquakes safety guide (embed below).

Remember, prepare, plan and stay informed.

Social media fills a fault

seismic waves by xkcd

While both DC residents and people across the United States took the opportunity to joke about the quake using Twitter, a more sobering reality emerged as residents found themselves unable to make phone calls over overloaded cellphone networks: social networks offered an important alternate channel to connect with friends, family and coworkers. In the context of overloaded networks, the Department of Homeland Security offered earthquake advice: don’t call. In fact, DHS urged urged citizens to use social media to contact one another. The White House amplified that message:

RT @DHSJournal: Quake: Tell friends/family you are OK via text, email and social media (@twitter & facebook.com). Avoid calls.less than a minute ago via Twitter for BlackBerry® Favorite Retweet Reply


Citizens didn’t need much urging to turn to social networks after the quake. According to

Facebook hosts conversation with Red Cross on social media in emergencies

The day after the earthquake, in what turns out to be an unusually good scheduling choice, Facebook DC is hosting a conversation with the Red Cross on the use of social media in emergencies. As a new infographic from the Red Cross, embedded below, makes clear, the importance of emergency social data has grown over the past year.

Social Media in Emergencies

According to a new national survey:

  • The Internet is now the third most popular way for people to gather emergency information, after television and local radio
  • Nearly a fourth of the online population would use social media to let family and friends know they are safe.
  • 80% of the general public surveyed believe emergency response organizations should monitor social media.
  • About one third of those polled via telephone said they would expect help to arrive within an hour.

The event will be livestreamed on Facebook DC’s page at 3 PM EDT, if you’re online and free to tune in.

Watch live streaming video from facebookdclive at livestream.com

More Americans Using Social Media and Technology in Emergencies


About Alex Howard

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.

4 Responses

  1. Avatar Kelcy

    I’m really sorry but I think it’s a little to early to say that the earthquake cemented the role of social media.  I believe that it clearly identified the need but if you look at government actions in releasing all federal workers early and gridlock on roads and rails along with cell phone failure, there was no clear government plan for social media.  More like an act of desperation than any clear plan for integrating social media into disaster coordination and reaction. 

    1. Avatar Anonymous

      Kelcy, when DHS, FEMA and the White House all use these channels in a crisis in the nation’s capital — and urge citizens to use them to contact one another — it’s an important data point. Likewise, for many people around me, email, Facebook and Twitter was the go-to place for them to connect with their friends and family. Your point about coordination is well taken — there’s a ways to go for coordinated communication and action — but if you look at Craig Fugate’s Twitter feed over the past year, there’s evidence of integration of mobile, social and data throughout.

      1. Avatar Kelcy

        But to what purpose.  There were so many missteps in yesterday’s disaster that continue to demonstrate that there is a lack of planning and executing to include an effective communications plan that include not just the general public but federal employees at all levels.  I was out sick but watched the news and later heard  stories of failed leadership, uncertainty, incompetence and just plain naive thinking. There was even uncertainty about whether to evacuate within some agencies and what do you do if the word is ‘shelter in place’.  Having the White House, Fema and DHS say use social media does not mean things get accomplished. Many govt agencies don’t permit access to social media on their workstations.  Some secure facilities don’t even have access to their cell phones.  And why would anyone encourage people to use their social media when they don’t even talk to agency leaders by that means.  There is also a difference between outward facing to the public and inward facing for govt employees.  There is precious little inward facing social media in the US govt.  Certainly none that could effectively coordinate a disaster.  And if all we are concerned about is checking in with loved ones and friends, then we have forgotten the purpose of federal, state and local govt.  Which is why we ended up with massive gridlock when agency/org leaders decided to release their people simultaneously and independently of anything that was going on anywhere.  By the way the same exact thing happened in 9-11.  In 10 years, we still have not managed despite numerous severe weather events for rehearsals to do more than say go use twitter and facebook. When do the ISPs become so overloaded they don’t work?  Has anyone bothered to test that?  No. Has real change in disaster and crisis management occurred in the DC region as a result of social media or anything else?  No, not if you measure it in gridlock and inability to perform vital missions that are needed during crisis management (many of which were unable to be done because of gridlock).  Just one last thing. It’s not enough to have “talking heads” use social media.  There must be full integration throughout every level of government and then tests of the system to see where failing points occurred in a normal test and where they might fail under different conditions.  But that would require a plan and leadership to make it happen.  I would love to see it happen but the past 10 years have shown me that’s probably just  a hope.

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