Looking Back: Hurricane Katrina Blogging

hurricain.jpgThe 2006 hurricane season started in June and we have been lucky this summer with only two named storms so far.  Last year we were not so lucky.  Brian pointed out in his photo blog on Flickr the work he did on the Slidell Hurricane Damage blog last year after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast and I thought it might be interesting to take a look back at our disaster blogging efforts.

Our effort began on August 27th with a post where I suggested, “Hurricane Katrina - Get Out!” Brian and his family were able to leave the small town of Slidell, just across the lake from New Orleans, and get to Dallas before the storm hit.  Next, NOAA started podcasting the Hurricane as reported here.  I wrote another post on August 30th describing the background behind the Slidell Hurricane Damage Blog where I described the reasoning for the creation of the blog:

Everytime Brian and I would talk he was telling about the lack of news from the area.  He had little tidbits, but no one had the full story.  The picture to the right is the bridge to Slidell.  I suggested that he start a blog where he could share his feelings and information about Katarina and its wrath (this seemed obvious since he runs a blog consultancy).  Anyway, he had one of the techs set it up and within an hour he was posting.  Shortly thereafter a reporter from CNN IM’d him asking for information, next Brian’s high school buddies were calling him after they read the blog and all sorts of people who had little bits of information were contacting him.

Later that day I reported that our church was taking donations of money and food to help victims who fled to Baton Rouge.  By this time Business Week, CNN, Boing Boing, Instapundit, Doc Searls, NevOn, PRspeak, Fred Wilson, Robert Scoble, Ochman, Tyler, Windley, David Parmet and countless others had promoted the site sending thousands of visitors to our posts over the course of the day.  We raised over $100,000 in donations that we could confirm, and perhaps thousands more that we never were able to track from these visitors.

Tragically, both this blog and the Slidell Blog attracted thousands of comments from people searching for their friends and family on the Gulf Coast.  The comments, like this one, were heart breaking:

Mac Pearce wrote:  Desparately seeking info on safety of 82 yr old uncle that refused to leave Slidell. He is ALONE at following address : 750 Teal Dr. off Pontchartrain & Kostmayer adjacent to Abney Elementary (white Jeep in driveway). We evacuated to Mobile and cannot make it back. If possible, PLEASE make attempt personally or by notifying Police Dept. that Mr. Billy Dubourg at above address may be desparately seeking assistance. ANYONE that can respond to me by E-mail ( tmpearce@——-.net ) would be GREATLY appreciated !! Thank you, Mac Pearce

By September 5th I reported in a post titled, “Weblogs Work for Small Towns” that the Slidell blog had attracted more visitors than lived in the entire town.  The totals were as follows: 316,533 hits, 47,201 vistors, 258 posts and 2,000+ comments.  By the end of the blogging effort over 410 posts were made on the blog and over 91,000 comments (some of those are obviously comment spam).

Brian wrote about the lessons we learned in a post titled, “For Recovery 2.0: Disaster Blog Lessons Learned.“  I think he summed up the net-net result of the blog when he explained,

So, we started the Slidell Hurricane Damage Blog to make the information come to us and to make all damage information on Slidell easily available.

The information truly flowed TO us - we did not create anything - simply create an outlet for consumer generated news from the area.  It was amazing.  Brian created some bullets for future disaster bloggers to think about:

  • Neighbors Need Info.jpgInformation is a necessity.  Speed matters.  As the sign says, neighbors need info as well as the other supplies.
  • Make it simple.  Then simpler still.  Unlike Weblogs Work visitors, we were trying to provide info to folks with very little blog experience.  The IE crowd.  The word blog put them off.  They didn’t know how to comment, etc.  We have no time for learning curves in such situations.
  • Be ready for complexity.  The butterfly wing effect in full effect.  So much more is broken than our houses.  The disaster response, including that which is swarmed on by the Web, has to keep going deep.  Business continuation issues.  Psychological impacts.  I really don’t know what will happen to our town, but I know our recovery efforts are going to have to keep changing as the needs change.
  • Check your politics.  We need all allies, all hands on deck.  Even as the news & blog postings around the storm started to take on a political charge, I very consciously avoided that for the Slidell blog.  I wanted all readers, all info sources, the full network.  There will be plenty of time later for meta discussions.
  • The problem you think is the problem might not be the problem.  I didn’t intend on the site becoming a clearinghouse for missing persons.  Open systems let folks use the resources to solve their own problems.  We need to be pliable in how we design these things.
  • Cast your net wide.  As I said, I tapped everyone I knew.  Fred Wilson in NYC helped flow traffic and technical help my way.  David Parmet got us visibility.  Paying attention to the right Technorati tags helped us grab all the interest in Slidell during those days.  It’s crazy the connections that lead back.  My best & earliest on-the-ground informant, Derek Babcock, came to me when his uncle in Miami read the blog and let me know he was there.  My friend Alex Muse posted about Slidell and what people could do to help on three different blogs and commented on Mark Cuban’s blog, raising well over $100,000 in donations from across the country.  A high school friend in Denmark emailed updates about her parents’ house. Others have written to me to donate money specifically for Slidell help, and we’re setting up a fund for that.  We have no idea where the connections will lead us, so cast the bread on the waters and see what happens.
  • Rumors are rampant.  I worked hard to ferret out rumors, and yet still propagated a few.  The water tower had fallen.  Florida Avenue Elementary was destroyed, etc.  I never did publish all the gruesome body count rumors I heard.  There is a whole study to be done on the spread of disaster rumors.  We’ll do that in another post.

Obviously the Slidell blog has outlived its usefulness as a resource, but remembering how it served Brian, his community and our lives continues to provide a useful lesson.  We are proud to have been a part of the effort!

Alexander Muse | 4:48 pm | Tags: Blogs , blogging , brianoberkirch , slidell , weblogswork , hurricane , katrina | Bookmark on del.icio.us | Digg It

3 Responses to “Looking Back: Hurricane Katrina Blogging”

  1. Rule #1: Don’t Break the Web at Like It Matters Says:

    […] I just don’t agree that it “obviously has outlived its usefulness.”   Who knows what to what use our data might be put?  It’s not up to us to willynilly recast the Web. I’ve often said the Slidell Hurricane Damage Blog was the most successful project I wish I never had to do. And I hope I don’t have to do another. But I’ve had too many people tell me that work was a valuable lifeline to have it negated because of personal differences. […]

  2. CrunchNotes » Slidell Hurricane Blog Deleted Says:

    […] That’s why I’m extremely unhappy to see that the blog has been deleted, apparently due to a spat between Brian and his former client, which hosted the blog. Brian’s side is here, and the WeblogsWork side is here. The details are irrelevant, I just hope the blog is put back up immediately. […]

  3. CrunchNotes » Slidell Hurricane Blog Deleted Says:

    […] That’s why I’m extremely unhappy to see that the blog has been deleted, apparently due to a spat between Brian and his former client, which hosted the blog. Brian’s side is here, and the WeblogsWork side is here. The details are irrelevant, I just hope the blog is put back up immediately. […]

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