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What Has Twitter Done For Nashville?

BY Nick Judd | Monday, May 10 2010

When I called Logan Baird on Friday, he told me he was sitting in a cafe on South 1st Street in Nashville, helping to manage the @nashvilleflood Twitter handle for an informal group of volunteers.

The flood waters that drowned the city had receded, but he told me that just a few days ago he could see the water soaking all of downtown Nashville from that same cafe. With the waters largely gone, the city is in a rebuilding phase. Using the #nashvilleflood hashtag, a network of Nashville tweeple are pointing out needs and trying to rustle volunteers in the right direction.

An informal disaster response network has formed online to deal with this crisis in which members are telling one another about jobs that need doing and passing along information about meetings with officials, places to volunteer, and the availability of services. Sharing information about a disaster via social media isn't new, but what is perhaps unique here is that people are not speaking from a distance — these are people discussing something that has happened in their own backyards. Not only are they talking, they are doing.

Sources of tweets about Nashville.Source: Trendsmap

American Red Cross Senior Vice President Joe Becker has called the level of home-grown volunteerism "fairly unprecedented." I would argue that the use of social media as a local part of that response, not as a novel thing but just because that's how many people in Nashville communicate with one another, is a part of that effort.

"There are many places downtown where it looks completely normal but in different sections in West Nashville, Belleview, Antioch, Franklin, it's like a disaster area," Baird told me Friday. "Still you'll see families pulling kind of water-logged furniture out of their houses and piling it on the street, still very, a whole lot of need for help in those areas."

Tom Wilson, a part-timer handling media communication for the local Office of Emergency Management, told me earlier Friday that the death toll inside Nashville was nine people. An OEM press release put out that morning said initial estimates were that flooding had caused $1.5 billion in damage.

Baird told me people needed help pulling out waterlogged couches and tearing out moldy carpets and drywall. He was hearing that elderly people in some neighborhoods in Nashville — River Plantation, Pennington Bend, West Nashville, Antioch, and Bellevue — were especially in need of help.

That's sweaty, arduous, unpleasant work. I did a little in 2007, helping to gut areas of New Orleans and its suburbs that were still unrepaired after Hurricane Katrina. I had to wear a mask, else mold spores would get in my lungs. Waterlogged houses are not pleasant places to be. Sweat made flecks of ruined drywall stick to my skin and clothes.

Crowbar, gloves, work boots. It's about as low-tech as you can get while remaining in the 21st century. But in Nashville, hands are meeting tasks thanks to coordination through Twitter and Facebook.

"Usually what's happening is people will tweet or post," Baird said, referring to his group's Facebook page. "Post and say hey I was helping or I drove by this area and I noticed that there weren't any volunteers here or there was just a couple people that could probably use more help and we'll retweet it we'll respond to the post and make sure that we try to get the word out."

Twitter was also helpful to spread information about shelters and disaster response while the power was out in Nashville, the maintainer of Greater Nashville House & Home & Garden Magazine's Twitter account told me via Twitter.

Jeannie Sutton, a researcher with the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs who studies the sociology of disasters, described to me a pattern people tend to follow when they're looking for information in a disaster:

"In disasters, our information seeking becomes in some sense intensified," she said. "The official sources are too slow. [People] go to major media and the major media is playing the same videos over and over and over again."

When those sources fail, social media and other online venues are the fall-back. What's happening — or, as people there get deeper into the rebuilding effort, has happened — in Nashville may be an example of that pattern.

The maps of Twitter references to Nashville used in this article are from today, Monday, after use of all Nashville-related hashtags seems to have died down — but Nashville was a nationwide topic of conversation. Source: Trendistic

There certainly is a lot of frustration in Tennessee about the national media's failure to cover what had happened there until well after the waters receded. The New York Times did a just-the-facts story on May 3, when evacuations began, and had two reporters covering Nashville with about one story a day thereafter.

CNN's Anderson Cooper didn't mention Nashville in his official Twitter feed until May 5, when he apologized for not covering the flood. (He flew down shortly afterwards.) But in his tweets, he — or his team, who appeared to be tweeting quotes attributed to him with the initials "ac" — said it was angry emails that eventually pulled CNN onto the story. Not social media. (Local media were active on Twitter, however.)

Nashville was a social-media standout in Sutton's research of an earlier disaster, in 2008, when a coal power plant's storage system for a toxic coal byproduct failed, spilling the sludge across 300 acres.

The immediate area around the Kingston Fossil Plant was a highly educated area, Sutton said, and she had expected to see Twitter use in that area. She didn't, really, and instead saw people about an hour's drive away, in Knoxville, and nearly three hours away, in Nashville, talking about the spill on social media.

Sutton said her focus for now was on the oil slick that may make landfall soon in the Gulf Coast region — she didn't have new research to add on the subject of the Nashville flooding.

The failure of national media to pick up this story earlier may have in part been a function of failed social media marketing. Baird said that Nashville residents were initially using #OtherSituation2010 for tweets about the flooding in their town. That's an inside joke among Nashville residents, referencing a snow and ice storm earlier in the year that was referred to locally as "The Situation." Without an obviously-named hashtag to become a trending topic, and without national media focus, how were people to know to really look into the damage in Nashville?

Perhaps it's a little late, but the story is now out, and has national attention.

If you're looking to help, you can text "REDCROSS" to 90999 and a $10 donation to the American Red Cross, which is working in Nashville, will appear on your next cellphone bill.