Digital tips for the next Sandy-like emergency

In an emergency, social media can be a powerful tool — but be sensitive, smart and skeptical with what you post.

Story highlights

  • Sandy-related posts have dominated social media, from tweets to Instagram photos
  • In the event of an emergency, think carefully about what you post: it can hurt and help
  • During a storm, it's smart to re-post valuable information, but stay skeptical until it's verified
It's been more than a week since Hurricane Sandy battered the East Coast, leaving a mess in its wake that we'll be cleaning for months to come.
In addition to consuming our worries and our watercooler chatter, the disaster has taken social media by, uh, superstorm, keeping us connected as we weathered the build-up, the tempest and its aftermath.
On October 29, all the top 10 most-mentioned phrases on Facebook in the United States were Sandy-related, including "stay safe," "power," "cold," and "my friends." On Twitter, storm-related terms were top trending topics, and on Instagram, users uploaded 10 pictures per second with the hashtag "Sandy."
In the spirit of post-disaster giving, we offer these tips (in addition to donations to the Red Cross and blood banks, obviously) for using the Web wisely before, during and after a catastrophe. Keep them handy for next time, because you've heard the scientists and all their global warming hullabaloo-ing.
(Or you can always take this tack. Shrug.)
-- By all means, yuk it up.
If there's an OK time to laugh in the face of danger, it's before the disaster has hit, when people scuttling around town like frenzied chipmunks in search of batteries and bread could really use a bit of comic relief.
Artist Todd Hale's hilarious Olivia Newton John infographic, for example, brought lots of smiles in the days leading up to the storm.
-- Use it to crowdsource, and to be helpful yourself
If anything brings out chilly East Coasties' soft sides, it's a shared disaster. Tap into the goodness of locals' hearts by requesting help ("Anyone know of a grocery store in Fort Greene that still has TP/water/malt liquor beverages?!") and by offering newsflashes yourself (e.g., adding a tip to Foursquare noting that a bodega is positively bursting with flashlights and Tecates).
Keep the good karma rolling apres storm, of course — retweeting information about local blood drives, say, or pointing out which restaurants have reopened their doors.
-- Let everyone know you're safe.
We live in New York City and experienced massive ego boosts when scores of "Are you safe? Dry? Alive?" texts rolled in during the storm. The thing is, had our power been out, we would have been pretty irritated by all the momentary drains on our smartphones' batteries.
Storms are the perfect time to value efficiency, and social networks are all about a small effort for a big reward: They give us unprecedented opportunity to broadcast information about ourselves to interested parties with just one update.
Whether you prefer to use Twitter, Facebook, a blog or something else, give the basics ("We're safe but without water or power, will keep you posted, and thanks for all the messages!") and then focus on the issues at hand. Like, oh, survival.
-- Stop joking when sh*t gets real
In New York City, things got scary quickly — we heard reports of looting downtown, of houses sucked away on Staten Island, of power failures in hospitals that necessitated mid-storm evacuation efforts. Litmus test: Are people dying? Yes? Then don't joke about it. You just look unclever and out of touch (cough cough Dane Cook cough).
-- Stay skeptical
Don't re-share every darn heart-stopping picture that makes it into your feed. Said picture is probably fake and will just scare the bejeebus out of your already twitchy followers.
-- Conserve your battery.
This ought to go without saying, but: If your updates run along the lines of, "OMG it's so dark! All of our candles are scented and now the place smells like the trash room of a perfume factory! I can't believe I can see Orion from Manhattan! It looks like a scene from 'The Walking Dead' outside my window! Hey which flashlight app do you guys like best?!" no one will pity you when your phone gives its last feeble beep.
Unplug. Play some cards. Make like this unintentionally hilarious Brooklyn-dweller and "live by candlelight, get in touch with (your) 19th-century self."
-- Mention it politely.
As things return to normal, we're all beginning to contact one another about the boring things we must contact one another about -- bills, travel, figuring out where your new vacuum got sent after your local FedEx center turned into a large-scale aquarium, etc.
When contacting anyone in the Northeast, it's kind to include a brief reference to Sandy at the beginning or the end, e.g, "I hope you and yours are safe and dry after last week's storm." No need to ask for details or get too effusive in your well-wishing.
But ignoring the elephant in the room in your correspondence seems, well, a bit callous, especially since the storm may affect the recipient's ability to get back to you.
-- Tread lightly with work e-mails.
Similarly, when the wheels of commerce begin to spin again, offices will be back up and running at different dates.
A reader inquired about totally refraining from e-mailing people at work so as not to seem insensitive, which seems a bit extreme. If you're back on the job and have business e-mails to send, by all means, say what you need to say.
Just bear in mind that even if you don't get an auto-response, your intended recipient might not be working. If that's the case, follow up in a couple of weeks, when things are — optimism ahoy! — back to normal.