Pastor Rich Cheek stands Wednesday afternoon in the basement of the Henryville Community Church, where many groceries and toiletries are available for tornado victims in the area. Christopher Fryer photo
By the numbers
American Red Cross surveys in 2010 and 2011 found an increasing number of Americans are using social media to get and gather information after a disaster. Among the findings:
24 percent of people surveyed say they would use social media to let loved ones know they are safe after a disaster.
80 percent believe national emergency response organizations should regularly monitor social media sites in order to respond promptly.
20 percent say they would use social media to contact emergency responders if they were unable to reach the 911 emergency line.
44 percent of regular online users would ask other people in their social network to contact authorities if they knew someone needed immediate help.
35 percent of regular online users would post a request for help directly on an emergency response agency’s Facebook page; 28 percent would send a direct Twitter message to responders.
75 percent of social media users said they expected emergency help would come less than an hour after they sent a Twitter tweet or posted a Facebook message.
HENRYVILLE, Ind. — The senior pastor of Henryville Community Church says he’s “never been much of a Twitter or Facebook guy,” but after a tornado nearly leveled his community, the Rev. Rich Cheek is now a believer.
Twitter tweets and Facebook postings connected to his church have triggered an outpouring of volunteers and donations to help clean up and rebuild this small southern Indiana town devastated by last Friday’s lethal storm.
Cheek’s conversion to social media started just hours after an EF-4 tornado — the second-highest on the Fujita scale that measures tornadic force — swept through the heart of Henryville, killing one, injuring others and knocking down buildings in its path.
Electricity went out and phone lines were down, but late that evening Cheek could get on his smartphone and take a call from a woman 25 miles away who had found his contact information on Facebook.
The caller was Angie Fenton, a writer for a weekly newspaper in Louisville, The Voice Tribune.
She asked: “What do you need?”
His response: “We need everything.”
The next morning, Fenton sent out a tweet with a plea for help for Henryville and gave details of a location in Louisville where people could drop off supplies. Fenton was hoping to get enough donations to make a small dent in a deep need caused by the lethal storm system that had spawned dozens of tornadoes across the Midwest and South late last week, leaving at least 38 dead.
By Sunday morning, Fenton’s tweet had generated donations of everything from diapers to drinking water — enough to fill four large box trucks, three sport utility vehicles, one pickup truck and an 18-wheel tractor-trailer.
“That’s the power of social networking,” Fenton said.
And that power is still running strong. Fenton continues to send tweets and post messages to Facebook updating the needs identified by Cheek and his congregation as they move into the long, hard recovery effort. A tweet she sent out about some hungry horses near Henryville generated 30 bags of horse feed.
Within 30 seconds after sending out a tweet about the need for a windshield to replace the shattered one on the car of an uninsured Henryville resident, Fenton got a call from a woman offering to pay for one.
“The response has been well beyond amazing,” Cheek said.
Social media increasingly has become an effective tool to speed up and coordinate disaster response. Soon after the tornado hit southeast Indiana last Friday, the Indiana State Police and the Indiana Department of Homeland Security started posting updates for the media on rescue efforts, using Twitter and Facebook. Both agencies have continued to use social media to report on recovery efforts, road closings, curfews, weather warnings and other news related to the recovery effort.
The trend is national. On Wednesday, the American Red Cross and the Dell technology company announced the opening of a new “digital operations center” at the disaster relief agency’s Washington, D.C., headquarters.
It’s where center staff can monitor post-disaster social media conversations, chart where those conversations are taking place and create “heat maps” that display information about the specific needs of disaster victims. Center staff gave it a test run last Friday after tornadoes swept through 10 states, including Indiana.
Red Cross officials said that kind of detailed information about immediate needs is often in short supply in the critical early hours that follow a natural disaster, when traditional lines of communication are cut off.
“It helps us tailor our response, because every disaster is different,” said Gloria Huang, whose title at the Red Cross is “senior social engagement specialist.”
The digital operations center was created after a 2010 American Red Cross survey showed the Internet was the third most commonly used way for people to get emergency-related information. The survey also showed that people unaffected by the disaster use social media to find information about how to give help to disaster victims.
That’s how Samantha Crain, a volunteer with the nonprofit Kentucky Cares, connected with the Northside Church of Christ in Jeffersonville, located just a few miles south of the storm-damaged area. Church member Nathaniel Eldridge got on the church’s Facebook page after the storm hit and posted a message that said the church was sending out clean-up crews to storm-ravaged communities.
Crain showed up at the church the next morning, and by that afternoon she was hauling tornado debris out of a farm field. The response to Eldridge’s Facebook shout-out for help has been so strong that the church had to create a separate Facebook page just for disaster response. “This has just snowballed,” said the church’s smartphone-carrying, text-sending pastor, the Rev. Conrad Moorer.
If social media is good for people who need help, it’s also good for people who want to give it. Kelly Brinker, general manager of two Famous Dave’s barbecue restaurant franchises near the tornado-struck towns in southeast Indiana, said her co-workers were eager to do something to help. She got online and saw a tweet sent out by Fenton, asking area restaurants if they’d be willing to send hot meals — and workers to serve them — to the Henryville Community Church, which has a large kitchen and dining area.
On Tuesday, Brinker dispatched seven workers and 350 meals to the church. Fenton’s single tweet generated a week’s worth of meals from area restaurants. “It took us just minutes to figure out what we could do,” Brinker said. “She made it so easy for us to help.”