I’m originally from Manville and Bound Brook, New Jersey (moved from one to the other during high school). You may have heard of those towns during the past couple of days: Manville got hammered by post-Hurricane-Irene flooding and literally sunk the National Guard (more on that later), Bound Brook’s hundreds of millions of dollars of flood control work, including a brand new flood gate, ameliorated the damage there but may have contributed to the disaster in Manville.
TV news proved essentially useless—Hurricane Irene was targeting New York, so that was the main focus of the national networks. The websites of New Jersey newspapers were a little better (I followed the Asbury Park Press and the Star Ledger most closely, along with the various local editions of the online newspaper, Patch). These did post storm updates every few hours, but were at least half a day behind the events and, with so many towns in New Jersey to track, had little specific information about the spots I was interested in.
It was the social media that really proved its worth during the onslaught and aftermath of Irene.
As the storm evolved, I went to the National Hurricane Center at its website and Facebook page for the latest track predictions and warnings, and two webcams near Seaside Park for an up-to-the-moment view of the ocean and beach. The hurricane barely grazed the area on Saturday, however, before the webcam images froze; the web cams were great on Monday for assessing storm damage there (pretty minimal).
I also stacked my TweetDeck with twitter searches for all three towns. This brought me the first few photos of the waters rising in those spots.Twitter also made sure I was one of the early viewers of a a video that would later go viral and even show up on the CBS Evening News, that of two National Guard trucks getting themselves into deep water, so to speak. (The trucks started floating, with just their rooftops visible, and the Guard members had to pop out of windows and swim to safety.)
When I’m tracking local flooding in California, I typically rely on an online flood monitoring system; unfortunately, those in New Jersey were hard to read and essentially useless. Ditto with maps of power outages posted by NJ utilities gave little information; better updates on the power situation came to me via Facebook, through a contact that worked at one of the utilities.
For a long time news from the barrier islands of the Jersey Shore was hard to come by, until I found a weather hobbyist’s Facebook page. It became a virtual gathering place for the worried, and a great source of information on Saturday and Sunday.
By Tuesday, the traditional media caught up, sifted through the information onslaught, and presented curated views of the storm and storm damage. At this point I was pretty tired of sorting through all the information on my own, and was happy to look to the media for summaries of key news and selections of the best photos (some of which I’d seen long before, but it was nice to have them all in one place). So there is a role for professional journalism (as a journalist, that, of course, is personally a big relief), but for breaking news, there’s nothing like social media.
Caption: This photo of a NJ hotel prepared for Irene became the Facebook profile photo for several of my family members during the hurricane. Credit: Michael Given
(Follow me on Twitter @TeklaPerry)
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.