Emergency Social Data: Alabama in Need

This guest post was written by Jeffrey Biggs from Dothan, Alabama and posted on the National Red Cross Blog. I had the pleasure of working with Jeffrey on my first national deployment in September of 2008 to Houston,TX for Hurricane Ike. In the Spring of 2008 he was deployed to Southern Wisconsin to assist in public affairs for the floods. Thank you Jeffrey for sharing your knowledge and in site on this changing world of communication during disasters. – Jody Weyers, Northeast Wisconsin Regional Volunteer and communications Director

Jody Weyers and Jeffery Biggs on deployment in Houston, TX.

 You’re sitting at home and feeling a bit helpless. All you see on the television is destruction taking place right before your eyes. You flip on your computer and you see the same thing. The local radio stations have quit playing your favorite tunes. Instead, they are interrupting normal programming to bring you the latest on the devastation taking place 200 miles to the northwest. Again, you feel like you can’t do anything but watch. You have friends and family directly in the path – and you’re in pain because you can’t help. No, I’m not reliving the events of September 11, 2001. I’m reliving the events of April 27, 2011.

April 27 was the day a horrific deadly tornado ripped a jagged scar across the state of Alabama from the Mississippi line on into Georgia and up into South Carolina. And I was sitting at work, and later at home, watching the events unfold on television and online. Concerned for my family and friends in Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, and Gadsden. Wondering aloud to my co-workers, “What can we do?”

And that’s when I started communicating – or at least attempting to. I immediately called my cousin in Birmingham to check on them. No answer. Of course not, cell phone towers were probably down. So I sat and waited for a bit. Then, my phone rang. My cousin, his wife, and their daughter were ok. My aunt and uncle – ok. My other cousins, ok. Relief was starting to creep in. But then, my cousin’s wife said one thing, “What’s going on? We know a tornado just went through, but we can’t really communicate with anyone. We don’t know what’s happening or if anything else is coming.”

And that’s when I knew I had a job to do. I could be the eyes and ears of those who were in the path of the dangerous storms. I had access to the weather in Birmingham. I could watch the news from Birmingham. I could lend a hand. And that’s what I did. I relayed information to friends and family in the Birmingham metro area from my house just outside of Dothan. And I posted it on Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media. Spreading information – accurate information – was vital in this time of crisis.

And then, an interesting thing happened. I got a Facebook message from my good friends in Washington DC regarding the weather north of me, and one very simple question, “Are you able to help?” Of course, my answer was “YES! Let me help those in my own backyard, please.”

And that’s when a unique experiment in social media communication began. As the majority of the world was fixated on events taking place across the Atlantic Ocean in London’s Westminster Abbey, the American Red Cross was focusing its energy on helping those throughout the southeastern United States who had just been impacted by the biggest natural disaster to heat the area since Hurricanes Katrina and Ike. Because the destruction was so widespread and the infrastructure in many areas so heavily damaged, it wasn’t feasible for everyone to travel to an area affected. Thanks to the advances of technology and the explosive growth of social media, someone had to monitor what was being said. Someone had to help spread real, vital, potentially life-saving information to those around the globe – and most importantly, in the disaster zone – who were transfixed on the events in my backyard.

 I could be that person. I have high-speed Internet at my house. I have access to television stations from Montgomery to Panama City, Fla., and thanks to that same high speed Internet, I have access to television and radio from the affected areas. And then, there was the little matter that I am a “power” Facebooker and adept Twitter user. I could monitor the action, stay in communication with the Red Cross workers in the field and in Washington DC, and help guide people to the right places at the right time.

You see, the little experiment turned out to be remotely harnessing the power of social media to actively lend a hand to those needing it most in the disaster zone. And it was a tremendous success. I was able to monitor the action in Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, and other areas of the state and find out what was being said – and by whom. If wrong information was out there, I had the resources to correct it. If people were in need in a certain area and had not seen Red Cross assistance, I was able to help guide either the person to the Red Cross, or more importantly, the Red Cross workers to the people who needed them most.

During the course of events, we even discovered someone making false accusations and misguided directions to individuals in need. Because of the speed of social media, we (and I mean we in the term of American Red Cross disaster relief workers) were able to right a wrong. And most importantly, during the flow of events, we were able to bring a little bit of comfort to those hurting so greatly.

Yes, it was an unconventional way to bring assistance to those hurting – and let’s face it, not everyone had the luxury of sitting in their living room during such a brutal ordeal – but it worked. It was a grand experiment that proved the power of social media and its ability to be that vital link between those hurting and those who are willing and able to help. Having worked with the Red Cross in disaster zones and utilizing social media in the field, it was interesting to see how it could work remotely. And it worked. It continues to work. And the power of social media continues to work in Alabama. A group of citizens have rallied together to harness the power of social media and our state’s intense football rivalry between The University of Alabama and Auburn University by creating Toomers for Tuscaloosa on Facebook – a site that continues to harness Facebook’s power and lend a hand throughout Tide and Tigerland.

Red Cross Brings Military Families Together

Kathryn Bracho

By Kathryn Bracho: Click HERE for video of story.

Last year, Action 2 News anchor Sarah Thomsen tore up the floor in the Dancing with the Stars fundraiser for the American Red Cross’s local Lakeland Chapter.

This year, Action 2 News morning anchor Kathryn Bracho steps out. Each vote for your favorite dancer is a donation to the Red Cross (click here for details).

It’s a fun experience and raised money for an organization which helps thousands of people across Northeast Wisconsin.

The Red Cross provides a service not many people know about.

Most of us know the Red Cross is there after disasters like Hurricane Katrina or, more locally, a fire at your home.

But you may not know the Red Cross helps hard-to-reach members of the military get news and the emergency leave time they need when big events happen in their families, like deaths, serious illnesses, and births.

“I am there to help people in any way I can,” Gayle Hein said.

Hein says she’s proud to be a Red Cross volunteer. She never realized that her own family would need help from the Red Cross.

“Right before Christmas, my nephew’s mother had passed away unexpectedly at 49.”

Hein’s nephew, Kenneth Lehr, of Watertown, Wisconsin, was stationed with the Army in Alaska.

Lehr knew about his mom’s death, but standard procedure is for the Red Cross to confirm a death, birth, or serious illness so that the military member can get emergency leave.

“I think it was a godsend to him to get him home and stuff. I think otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to come home.”

Gayle Hein (on the left) volunteering at the Marine Corp welcome home event.

Services to Armed Forces: In war zones even heroes need consoling

by Sarah Forgany / KENS 5 San Antonio: Click here for link to KENS website. 

SAN ANTONIO — Imagine being isolated 7,000 miles away from family, friends, everything you’ve grown up to know your entire life. It’s not far fetched. It’s the life thousands of young American men and women are living now, to protect us, to fight for our freedom.

The men and women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan are American heroes, but even heroes need consoling at times.

In a war zone – that sense of comfort is often given by a support team of Red Cross volunteers like Natalie Holbrook.
“I have lived nearly 12 years overseas, from 1998 – 2010 in Japan, England, Germany and now Kuwait,” Holbrook said.

Holbrook spent four months in Kuwait this year before returning home to San Antonio. She has had a passion for helping people, and she was able to do just that. Her job in the Middle Eastern country was to pass emergency communication messages between soldiers, contractors and their families.  

“Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, the Red Cross sends emergency communications to deployed service members on behalf of their family,” Holbrook said. “They relay urgent messages.

Holbrook is a paid staff member of the services to Armed Forces department of the American Red Cross.

The job is not easy. She recalls working for months without a day off, in harsh conditions, hot weather, sandstorms, small rooms and shared showers.

“One has to be willing to learn the ins and outs of working within a structured military environment as well,” she said. “We sometimes deal with emotionally distraught service members worried about their loved ones. Our job is to listen and let them vent.”

One moment stands out in her mind. Holbrook says she will never forget the young sailor who had just learned the news of his grandfather’s death.
“I sat him down and started a case,” she recalled. “The next day he was on a plane headed back to Wisconsin. He was able to go on emergency leave to attend the funeral. When he returned he said he was very grateful to us for our small part in helping him get home. I still keep in touch with him.”

The Kuwait office is very significant in this respect, Holbrook said. It is the gateway country from which all service members enter theater. Red Cross volunteers are able to track the exact whereabouts of an individual and unit during transit.

But when she’s not dealing with emergencies, Holbrook says they set up morale events such as fun runs, and movie days. They ran the HIDE AWAY OASIS, a canteen service shop that carried books, coffee, snacks, two flat-screen televisions, DVDs, and lending library games.

“We also hand out donated items such as razors, shaving cream, cookies, games, all donated by the American public,” Holbrook said.
The Red Cross provides services to more than 2.5 million active duty military personnel, the National Guard and Reserves and their families.

“No person would be able to perform a job or properly function through their day knowing their families are in distress,” she added.

For Holbrook, the experience is emotionally rewarding, because even the strongest of men and women need comforting, Holbrook said. They need to know their families are safe.

“We support the service members and other DOD affiliates because they are humans beings and not because of the uniform they wear or the job they do,” Holbrook said.

While not on the job, Holbrook is a Red Cross health and safety instructor and volunteer at the San Antonio chapter. Soon she says she’ll be heading to Germany to back-fill for another staff member going to Iraq.

Many may consider Holbrook a hero herself. She’s helped hundreds of our uniformed men and women get through the toughest of times, in a land far far away from home.

But Holbrook admits she’s the one that walked out of this experience with emotional rewards, and making amazing friends.

The best part about it all?

“Honestly, I can’t say,” she said. “It was all great.”

www.SAredcross.org or call 224-5151 and ask for services to the Armed Forces.