Imagine…its 1855 and you’re in a covered wagon being pulled by a pack of mules across the Great Plains as part of a long wagon train of pioneers who, like yourself, hope to settle in the American west. Your wagon train comes under attack from a raiding party and you know immediately and without thinking to circle the wagons with the other settlers. You work together to defend yourselves in case of crisis, and only barely hope for the unlikely event that the US Cavalry may arrive in time. Helsloot and Ruitenberg believe that today’s citizens react to disasters in the same fashion as our predecessors by working together in community networks to respond to crises. The major difference in 2012 is that citizens now use technology and social media (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google Maps) to share information, organize themselves, identify needs and resources, and plan their initial response. And in many places, citizens are increasingly using these technologies to respond to crises immediately before the modern-day equivalent of the government “cavalry” arrives.
To examine this phenomenon, the Metropolitan Institute (MI) at Virginia Tech is studying recent smaller-scale local disasters that affect communities or a small number of counties. Specifically, MI is looking at what happens when the community infrastructure for response is overwhelmed and some systems become unavailable. Two disasters that met these criteria were identified in Pennsylvania: a natural gas pipeline explosion in Allentown and drinking water contamination in Dimock, the latter of which was likely caused by “fracking,” a controversial natural gas drilling process.
How do you think citizens of today respond to disasters differently than our predecessors more than 150 years ago?