One moment residents of a block of brick row houses in Allentown, Pennsylvania are going about their ordinary lives, the next moment, 10:45 pm on February 9, 2011 to be exact, an earth-shattering explosion fueled by a natural gas pipeline break killed five people, leveled half the block, and set fire to the rest of it in rapid succession. Regional CEO John Hughes’ American Red Cross Lehigh Valley chapter was deployed to the fairgrounds to address the primary needs of safety, shelter, food, clothes, and medications. When he arrived at the temporary shelter he asked something that he and his counterparts may not have contemplated five years ago or more. He asked “does anyone have the capacity to use Facebook and Twitter to tell people what’s going on here?” A nearby volunteer took out his smart phone and began using social media to get the message out almost immediately. Hughes said “I never really understood the value of it, but now I see how it can be used as a tool of great value”.
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, people in the Lehigh Valley and beyond were engaged in helping to collect enormous amounts of tangible and cash donations. Although he thought “someone was pulling my leg”, Hughes received a call on his cell phone from Actress Sharon Stone who hails from Pennsylvania asking what she and her charitable foundation could do to help. Existing faith-based and business groups immediately came together to offer help. He said that less cohesive informal networks “saw a need, they jumped in, they did what they could with the need, they felt bad about what had happened, then they moved on” all in the span of two weeks to a month.
The electronic memory of what happened on that February night is well-preserved in countless traditional media accounts, through social media channels, and written reports. Hughes says that going forward “we need to do a better job of getting the message out and capturing people’s attention at that point, bringing them in, and using the event to build on that. Regardless of whom you are, where you live, what your income level is, you can be impacted and affected in some way. You need to be prepared and have a plan. In a disaster you need to first take care of yourself and your family, but if you want to be involved in helping your community, we need to find a way make that happen.”
If you were the Director of the local Red Cross chapter, how could you be better prepared to communicate with citizens who want to help and how can they be effectively organized?