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Sarah Sipek/MEDILL 

The 190 mph winds that struck Coal City tore the roofs off houses and caused devastating damage.


Social media in disasters: Telling their own stories after the tornadoes

by Sarah Sipek
Dec 14, 2013


coal city 2

Sarah Sipek/MEDILL

Federal money granted to Illinois will assist with the cleanup.

Social media gave people an added safety tool when stricken by tornadoes in Illinois towns last month and allowed them to document what it was like to live through a natural disaster and even kept them safe.

November 18, 2013 - the day after the tornadoes hit in Coal City.

The sun shines brightly as I drive south on I-55, a stark contrast to the heavy grey-black clouds that filled the sky just 24 short hours before. But the sky’s not the only thing that’s changed. It’s brisk—the temperature dropped more than 20 degrees overnight.

The destination is Coal City. The day before, a tornado cut a four-mile wide path of destruction through the small town located 62 miles south of Chicago.

As the miles pass, fallen telephone wires hint at the destruction ahead. Exit 236 provides the first impasse. State police close off the exits heading in both directions, but the damage is evident even from the interstate. A community along the frontage road is leveled.

Some clever use of back roads allows me to double back towards the town, but again, the police stand in the way. They wave a caravan of ComEd trucks through. Everyone else must state a purpose.

Walking freely through the town is clearly not an option. Families are only just beginning the clean up, and it is clear they have a long way to go. Houses are missing roofs, cars lay smashed under trees, and debris is strewn everywhere. But these images tell only part of the story.

When FEMA arrives, it is time to leave. Disappointed, I head home. But when I open my computer, I find the first-hand accounts staring me in the face.

On Twitter. On Instagram. On Facebook.

“We’re okay,” along with a picture of a family hugging outside of their dilapidated home.

“Pray for Washington,” along with a picture of a cross than had been carved into a downed tree.

A single word: “Heartbreaking.”

These posts allowed the people of Coal City and Washington to share their stories with the world. But prior to that, they also allowed meteorologists to help keep them safe.

Ed Curran, a meteorologist at CBS, recognized the importance of social media during his Sunday broadcast.

“We can watch for rotation on our radars, but we don’t know what’s going on at ground level until you tell us," he said. "So thank you for your tweets.”

It’s that kind of dialogue that the National Weather Service strives to achieve. For years they have struggled with how to disseminate warning information in such a way that everyone who needs it will have access to it as quickly as possible.

“Meteorologists and forecasters are tradition bound,” says Rick Smith, a warning coordinator meteorologist at the Norman, Okla. Forecast Office. “They have their own language and acronyms that they use among themselves. They don’t translate well to a public that doesn’t share their expertise.”

But as Twitter has become more and more popular, the National Weather Service has started to find a way to engage the public. On Nov. 16 it began issuing warnings about possible severe weather the next day over Twitter along with precautions that the public should take.

And it seems to be working. The tornado that struck Washington, Ill. was rated as an EF-4, with winds reaching 190 miles per hour. There was only one fatality.

“It’s about getting information about,” Smith said. “If that means using social media, that’s what we need to do.”



November 18, 2013. The day after the tornadoes hit in Coal City.  

The sun shines brightly as I drive south on I-55, a stark contrast to the heavy grey-black clouds that filled the sky just 24 short hours before. But the sky’s not the only thing that’s changed. It’s brisk—the temperature dropped more than 20 degrees overnight.

The destination is Coal City. The day before, a tornado cut a four-mile wide path of destruction through the small town located 62 miles south of Chicago.

As the miles pass, fallen telephone wires hint at the destruction ahead. Exit 236 provides the first impasse. State police close off the exits heading in both directions, but the damage is evident even from the interstate. A community along the frontage road is leveled.

Some clever use of back roads allows me to double back towards the town, but again, the police stand in the way. They wave a caravan of ComEd trucks through. Everyone else must state a purpose.

Walking freely through the town is clearly not an option. Families are only just beginning the clean up, and it is clear they have a long way to go. Houses are missing roofs, cars lay smashed under trees, and debris is strewn everywhere. But these images tell only part of the story.

When FEMA arrives, it is time to leave. Disappointed, I head home. But when I open my computer, I find the first-hand accounts staring me in the face.

On Twitter. On Instagram. On Facebook.

“We’re okay,” along with a picture of a family hugging outside of their dilapidated home.

“Pray for Washington,” along with a picture of a cross than had been carved into a downed tree.

A single word: “Heartbreaking.”

These posts allowed the people of Coal City and Washington to share their stories with the world. But prior to that, they also allowed meteorologists to help keep them safe.

Ed Curran, a meteorologist at CBS, recognized the importance of social media during his Sunday broadcast. 

“We can watch for rotation on our radars, but we don’t know what’s going on at ground level until you tell us," he said. "So thank you for your tweets.” 

It’s that kind of dialogue that the National Weather Service strives to achieve. For years they have struggled with how to disseminate warning information in such a way that everyone who needs it will have access to it as quickly as possible.  

“Meteorologists and forecasters are tradition bound,” says Rick Smith, a warning coordinator meteorologist at the Norman, Okla. Forecast Office. “They have their own language and acronyms that they use among themselves. They don’t translate well to a public that doesn’t share their expertise.”

But as Twitter has become more and more popular, the National Weather Service has started to find a way to engage the public. On Nov. 16 it began issuing warnings about possible severe weather the next day over Twitter along with precautions that the public should take.

And it seems to be working. The tornado that struck Washington, Ill. was rated as an EF-4, with winds reaching 190 miles per hour. There was only one fatality.

“It’s about getting information about,” Smith said. “If that means using social media, that’s what we need to do.”

 

This story was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.