When a tornado hit Bridgeport in June 2010, the city's mayor had just started dipping his toes into the social networking site Twitter. What Mayor Bill Finch and others in his administration learned during that storm is that Twitter was an excellent way to let citizens know about things like power outages, property damage, blocked roads and the like.
"That was a tipping point," said Finch spokeswoman Elaine Ficarra.
Social media became an even bigger tool for the city during subsequent emergencies, including last year's tropical storm Irene and the October snowstorm. Not surprisingly, Ficarra and others in Connecticut and beyond said social media will play a major role in informing the public about the path of Hurricane Sandy, which many are predicting will be felt in the state early this week.
According to a report on Internet usage released by the Pew Research Center earlier this year, social media use has been on the rise for some time. As of August, 48 percent of adults who use the Internet use social media sites in a typical day, up from 43 percent in August 2011. In 2009, a mere 27 percent of online adults used social media in a typical day.
Ficarra said the main draws of site like Twitter are their ability to reach people quickly. Bridgeport has three Twitter accounts and three Facebook pages.
State agencies also have turned to social media sites as a way to communicate with the public. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has a Twitter and Facebook account which will be used to update Connecticut residents.
Another attraction of social sites is that they often can be accessed via smartphones even when the power goes out, said David Bednarz, Malloy's deputy press secretary.
"During last year's two storms, many people who lost power were following us on Twitter with their battery-operated cell phones both during and after the storm as a way to receive important updates from the governor and emergency management officials," he said.
Bednarz, Ficarra and others didn't discount the importance of "old-school" ways of staying in touch during a storm, such as using a battery-operated radio to listen to news alerts. Ficarra said city employees have even gone door-to-door contacting residents if they need to evacuate. But social media has been valuable as a way of letting people know the latest news about an emergency.
"Anytime we want to get the word out fast, this is an easy way to do it," Ficarra said.
However, social media can be a mixed blessing, said Rich Hanley, associate professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University. He agreed that it's a great way to get out information during an event but said it can create unneeded hysteria in advance of a storm.
"It's good for solid information about power outages (and similar information)," Hanley said. "But it's this pre-storm chatter that's a problem."
Because social media allows for only short bursts of information, Hanley said, it's a friendly environment for hyperbolic statements.
"It adds to the tension," he said.
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