When Hurricane Sandy caused trees to fall, power lines to go down and lights to go out, Westfield – like most towns in the region – fell quiet and dark. But with inquiries about school openings, road closures and other pressing issues on the minds of residents, the storm did nothing to quell the town’s need for information.
As parents and students scrambled for answers to their questions, alternative means of communication were crucial and non-traditional methods of dispersing information in a timely fashion proved invaluable. With landline phones down and televisions and laptops without power, many tapped away at smart phones and iPads to get the information they needed from the real-time dialogue going on within the world of social media.
“One of the big takeaways from the last few weeks is that people live in real time and expect their communications that way as well,” Board of Education member Mitch Slater said at Tuesday night’s Board meeting.
Like other town officials, Board members sought the most effective means to relay pressing information to residents during the often chaotic and confusing days following the storm. The hurricane caused the closure of all district schools from Oct. 29 through Nov. 8, and with each passing day, parents became increasingly eager for the most up-to-date news regarding when classes would resume.
But the Board’s task was complicated when its server and website went down, sending district officials scrambling for other means to keep students and parents updated with pertinent news. Superintendent Margaret Dolan said the district’s Instant Alert System was effective, sending out 15 alerts during the school closure that the majority of residents were able to receive through at least one means of communication.
However, as days progressed and residents craved more frequent and more detailed updates, many turned their attention to social media. Slater, who is chair of the Ad-Hoc Technology Committee, said he became the Board’s de-facto social media presence during the storm and its aftermath. He posted district updates on his personal Facebook page, detailing the latest discussions among the Board and the town. He said he collected hundreds of new Twitter followers in the days that followed the storm.
Residents also benefited from the Town Council’s Twitter feed @townofwestfield, which provided followers with the latest information on road openings, power outages and other local matters. Several Council members also used their personal feeds to spread information.
In addition to serving as a source of news updates, social media also provided a forum for residents to share their needs and assist their neighbors. For example, as the town scrambled for power, Board President Richard Mattessich informed Slater that the district was in need of a generator. Slater relayed the message to his Facebook and Twitter followers, and within hours, a group of residents had helped provide the district with the generator it coveted.
Westfield was hardly the only town to use social media to gather input and disseminate information during the storm. Residents of the borough of Ramsey launched a Ramsey Recovers Facebook page, tying the social media platform to a real time crisis.
“We realized that we could leverage the power of the crowd and what people knew,” said Ramsey resident Erik Endress, who also serves as the Education Technology Specialist for the New Jersey School Board Association. “People started sharing [information] quickly: where you could get gas, where you could get ice, information that doesn’t all have to come from the city.”
Endress said the Facebook page launched, in part, because local officials had not shown an interest in using social media effectively to spread information. As power remained out, traditional methods of communication became less practical, and residents took matters into their own hands to share news and ideas as quickly as possible. The Ramsey Recovers page filled the gap that many felt was left by the borough’s futile attempts to keep residents informed.
“If the only information you are getting at the time you need it the most is a reverse-911 call that says ‘We’re working on it,’ that is unacceptable,” Endress said.
The usefulness and importance of social media during and after the hurricane is likely to revive discussions over whether the Board should have more of a social media presence in place. Slater told Patch the district will have a Twitter feed up and running “immediately,” an initiative that Dolan supported at Tuesday’s meeting.
A district Facebook page had been discussed last year, but ultimately the Board decided not to pursue it, citing concerns over having the resources to monitor the page’s comments section. The topic will be discussed at this Friday’s Ad-Hoc Technology Committee meeting, and Slater also said the discussions will continue at the Board’s next public meeting on Nov. 27.
“We will report back about how to put a meaningful solution with parameters, guidelines and procedures going forward,” he said.