This past Saturday afternoon, April 16, I was at home with my two sons when we learned that a tornado was quickly moving through Wake County and headed for our community. Without giving it a lot of thought, I woke up my youngest son from his nap to bring him downstairs, grabbed a flashlight, my MP3 player (for its radio function) and headed for our downstairs bathroom. No sooner had we finished lifting up a frantic prayer to God asking for His protection, I saw a darkness that is hard to describe and the strongest winds that I’ve ever experienced blow through the water behind our house. In an instant, our deck furniture was blown away. All of our trees were bending over at a 90 degree angle. And then … it was gone. A tornado had blown through our community. As I quickly surveyed the damage, I found that we lost a large 40 ft. tree (fortunately it fell across our fence and not our house) and we had some minor roof damage. Overall, however, we were still in-tact.
Little did we know the damage that had been wrought on our community. We later learned that several neighborhoods just 1/4 a mile away from us had been totally devastated. Many lost everything. Fortunately, no one in those houses lost their lives either.
Our church, Wake Cross Roads Baptist Church, sits at the center of our community. It is more than 220 years old and an anchor within the community. So it is not surprising that it quickly became a staging area for Samaritan’s Purse, the Boone-based Christian relief organization. The had a mobile relief trailer in place by Monday morning and were already coordinating operations to get volunteers out into the community by that afternoon. In short, they are an amazing organization to watch up close. They move with precision in difficult situations and do so with tremendous caring and concern, all while seeking to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ.
So, what does all this have to do with digital media? Well, in some of the positions I’ve served in during my career, I’ve been afforded the opportunity to work with the North Carolina State Emergency Response Team (SERT) and the Wake County Emergency Operations Center. These governmental entities are charged with leading the state and county efforts to manage and respond to disasters of all kinds (hurricanes, ice storms, tornadoes and even nuclear disasters). In my time with these groups, I was able to work in disaster communications where I learned how to deliver key messages, make sure people had the information they need to do their jobs, deliver media interviews in pressure-packed situations and handle wild rumors that could create panic. It was challenging work and some of the most gratifying that I’ve done in my professional career.
On Monday, I got in the car and headed over to our church to see what I could do to help. I can certainly grab a chainsaw or put on a pair of workgloves and move debris. But I sensed that God was asking me to play a different role this time. He was calling me to step in and use the experience I’d gathered through the years in disaster communications and put it to work here. We were quickly able to get a communications structure setup that made use of social media, e-mail, video and phone lines. We also focused on identifying our key messages at the moment and coordinating them with the church staff and the volunteers on-site to make sure everyone knew what was going on. I’m amazed at just how quickly we were able to pull this off. I got the chance to work with some tremendous people and it was nice being in an environment where everyone puts ego aside and simply focuses on getting the work done, regardless of whether or not you get any credit for it.
We made strong use of Facebook as WCRBC already had a Facebook page. One of the things we focused on with Facebook was making sure we were pushing out regular updates about every hour or two so we could keep our church members engaged and enlisting them to help spread the word. We also focused on using it as a conversational medium so that if anyone had questions (i.e. “how can I volunteer” or “what supplies are needed”) or wanted to check on someone, we could get back to them quickly. These efforts paid off as we saw a great deal of engagement, re-posting of status updates and growth in the number of fans on the WCRBC page (we went from just over 200 fans on Saturday to 311 by Wednesday).
One thing WCRBC did not have in its toolkit was a Twitter account. We quickly setup an account, supplied it with basic information, found key people within the church that we knew were active users of Twitter so we could follow them (and in turn enlist them to help us push out the messaging), and started sending our messages out right away. Twitter is one of those interesting areas that can either explode for you right away in terms of finding a lot of followers to consume your message or take a long time to ramp up. We found it to be more of the long ramp up approach, but that was OK. We’ve planted the seed and it can now grow into other uses for WCRBC into the future.
The item that was most interesting to me was the use of video. I’m a big proponent of video and believe it should be used in your digital media strategy wherever possible. In this case, we took the form of posting a regular update from our Sr. Pastor, Bill Bowyer, about the on-going efforts, how people could get involved and what items were needed. We did shoot one video with the on-site coordinator from Samaritan’s Purse explaining how people could volunteer with SP to help with debris removal. The feedback from these videos was great. I heard from more than one person saying that it really helped them understand the magnitude of what was happing within the community. To me, that is what good disaster communications is all about.
Our community still has a long way to go. Those whose homes were a total loss are unlikely to see their lives return to “normal” for several months to come. However, I was very encouraged to see how we could take some very simple tools like Facebook, Twitter and video and use them to coordinate a community-wide response to a disaster.
On a final note, I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that WCRBC was the only group doing disaster comm in the area. Indeed, we were merely one of many. The American Red Cross, along with the state and the county and several others were working very hard in the area. Their efforts were incredible (and still are as we’re still working on response to this disaster) and they should be commended for their work. Bottom line– it’s amazing to see what can happen when people pull together in one direction!