Hurricane Isaac & Social Media: Not Just For Memes & Self Portraits

September 4th, 2012 by Search Influence Alumni

What were we to do? Hurricane Isaac is raging outside our doors, winds ripping down the street at 100 miles an hour, suddenly our power dies and our city goes dark. New Orleanians are trapped inside our homes without a way to connect to the outside world. At this point we hopefully aren’t wasting precious phone battery playing Tetris or Words with Friends, because this is when social media takes a greater importance than creeping on our friends from high school.

In New Orleans, hurricanes and tropical storms aren’t a new phenomenon. Locals have become accustomed to evacuation procedures and preparing for torrential rain and screaming winds. What becomes difficult is communication during and following the storm. While Hurricane Isaac swept through New Orleans and plunged forward further inland, residents from all corners of Louisiana found themselves without power. After weathering the storm itself, those of us who chose not to evacuate were left without power and working appliances — so it was to social media we turned to receive the most recent updates on Isaac.

Throughout the storm, the local news stations used Twitter and Facebook to answer questions from residents. Several times during the live broadcast, viewers would see news anchors scrolling through their social media accounts to acknowledge questions and retrieve answers from the on-camera meteorologist.

For me, this was my first hurricane in New Orleans and I wanted to know exactly what Isaac was doing at every second. I turned to the only thing left in my house with power: my cell phone. In a matter of minutes, I was able to pull up maps, tracking systems and up to date information on Isaac’s movement. Also, by following the local news channels, the Weather Channel, New Orleans Police Department and other authorities on Twitter and Facebook, I was able to stay informed of evacuations and road closures.

By Thursday, the worst of the storm was over. For the most part the people of New Orleans were safe and dry, but bored. Almost the entire city was left without power: no air conditioning, no Law and Order marathon on the TV, no radio to listen to. Everything in the freezer and refrigerator was spoiled. Computers were basically useless without the Internet to connect to. What did we do? Lucky for New Orleanians (who have a bit of practice at this kind of thing), the city is filled with outstanding restaurants and local watering holes that know how to deliver great service even in the midst of an outage. We were then left with the question, “How do we know what’s open?”

Many homes, mine included, were left without power stretching into Labor Day weekend. While this is not the first time many locals had been without power for an extended period of time, it never gets easier to be without air conditioning in 95-degree temperatures and 90 percent humidity. We needed reprieve from the heat in the form of a hot meal, a cold beverage and a little bit of entertainment. Again, social media comes to the rescue. From Hurricane Isaac, new trending hashtags came to life! #NOLAopen #NOLAgas and #NOLAfood quickly became an easy way for businesses and restaurants to tell the community that their generators were pumping cool air and their doors were open.

On Facebook, businesses were updating their fan base through status updates on when their doors would be open and the availability of their service. Many businesses in downtown New Orleans were able to open as early as Thursday night with limited menus, but air conditioning and cold drinks — just in time for the Saints game.

One of the most impressive factors of the social media phenomenon was how involved the community became. Normal residents worked together to highlight open businesses. Including hashtags and sharing amongst friends, they continued to spread the word and fuel the conversation throughout New Orleans. Local businesses have historically gained a lot of traction via direct outreach on Facebook and Twitter, and this situation was a perfect example: customers checking their Facebook feed or liked pages were able to quickly and conveniently get the information they were looking for directly from the horse’s mouth, and reward establishments who stayed visible and in touch with their business.

One local New Orleans blogger made it her mission to keep the city informed of operational businesses. Leslie J. Almeida focused her Twitter, Facebook and blog on an eight-page hand written list of businesses open during and directly after Isaac. Without power herself, she was left with her phone, paper and pencil. As she learned of each business she would add it to a hand written list, take a picture of the paper with her phone and upload it to social media.

Needless to say, social media and cell phones also proved extremely useful helping people to connect. Once Isaac hit, landlines went dead across the city. Friends and family were able to check on loved ones via cell service and texts. As I recently moved here from Arizona, a state that doesn’t have natural disasters like hurricanes, my friends and family expected the worst. With a limited phone battery, a quick status update for my whole Facebook circle was easier than several texts and phone calls.

All in all, a hurricane isn’t the most fun Labor Day weekend you can imagine. Even a category one storm like Isaac can leave a city in the dark — but social media and influential members of the community are able to use their platforms to keep New Orleans residents safe, dry and well fed.