10 Years After Katrina: Would Social Media Have Made a Difference?

Photo: NewsMuse on Flickr 8https://flic.kr/p/6aRxv) (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Photo: NewsMuse on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This week it’s been 10 years since  Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans – a good opportunity to look at how far we have come in the field of social media in emergency management.

A while ago I read an excellent book called “Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital”, which I highly recommend. The book focuses on the Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans where things got increasingly desperate to the point where doctors thought that they had no other choice than to give patients lethal doses of medication.

Pulitzer Price-winning author Sheri Fink shows, how years of neglected disaster preparedness, neglected risk reduction, lack of coordination and finally a lack of accurate information have contributed to the disaster itself and the situation at Memorial.

Fink takes the reader on a journey that explains – but doesn’t excuse – how capable, passionate medical doctors, who had sworn an oath to preserve life, arrived at a mental state where they not just felt it was justifiable to kill those patients that could not be evacuated safely, but where they felt it was the responsible thing to do.

While heat, lack of water and electricity certainly accounted for a lot of this, the book also makes it clear, that wild rumours about “homicidal gangs” significantly influenced their perception and their decisions. In the end, some medical staff had become so convinced that the hospital would be overrun by criminals looking for drugs, that they decided it was better to kill those patients that could not be evacuated, rather than leave them at the mercy of the hordes that were perceived to be waiting in the dark.

#Mythbusting

Of course, later it turned out that reports of criminality had been blown out of proportion (which we saw again in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake). I believe that social media and a robust process to communicate with affected people would have made a difference. While cell phone charges and internet connections wouldn’t have held up for the five days that people were trapped at Memorial, #mythbusting via social media could have reduced the fear by reducing or eliminating rumours in the first days. Stopping the rumour ball from rolling, as people were sitting in the sweltering heat, afraid for their lives, could have been enough.

Situational awareness

I’d also like to think that social media would have improved situational awareness for emergency responders, such as the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). A week after the storm, FEMA director Michael Brown said that the agency had not known that evacuees had been stranded without food and water in the New Orleans Convention Center until he saw news reports.

Given the pervasiveness of social media, crisismapping and crowdsourcing platforms, I find it inconceivable that the same information vacuum could exist in a major city in a highly developed country today. Instead, I’m convinced that these technologies would have led to enhanced situational analyses which would have flagged situations at places like Memorial as urgent and critical so that hopefully it would never have escalated as it did.

Of course, this is all conjecture and wishful thinking. But I believe that these technologies can significantly improve operational decisions when used quickly and competently so that fewer lives are lost the next time.

What are your thoughts? Please share them in the comments.