But even Rahimi was startled by the amount of activity on Twitter and the nature of the tweets. "Once the emergency calls started coming in, I was surprised and it took a second to figure out how I was going to handle it," she said. "I didn't think about the fact that with cell service down they'd still have access to Twitter."
She said people were panicking. "It was extremely scary outside. Sitting in my office listening to the wind rushing past the building, it was a crazy sound, and to be out in it and having water rush into your house or even approaching your house is a scary situation."
Rahimi said many people were in shock as water threatened their homes. They didn't know what to do and needed advice and comfort. "Many of them were saying they were trying to stand on furniture or had rushed to the second floor -- anything to stay out of the water. Without cell service, they didn't feel like anyone was able to help them or connect with them."
Rahimi never intended for Twitter to be used in such a way, but sees it as a key for communications during future disasters. "This is a little different from what I expected Twitter to be used for; not only to help people get the help they needed but to dispel rumors [and] share information about what certain people should be doing if something is happening around them," she said. "This has given us a look at how Twitter will be used in the future. And it was a good introduction and a good way to figure out how we can best use it for emergencies in the future."
Thompson saw social media at its best when it came to donations management, always a problem during disasters. As usual, donations were pouring in to the point where there was too much of a good thing. A local church, inundated by the flood of donations, posted on Facebook daily lists of needs, such as flashlights, batteries and cleaning materials like buckets, Thompson said. "Once they started to become more specific about what their needs were, the spontaneous donations still came in but they got more of what they actually needed."
Using social media to glean needed donations and possibly halt the flow of unwanted items could be a good practice. There are other lessons from Sandy as well.
"The preparedness materials say you should have batteries and radios, but when we arrived seven days after the storm struck, those batteries are dead," Thompson said. Preparing for three to five days is old, and "educated" people say be prepared to be self-sufficient for 10 days, Thompson said.
She said a company called Goal Zero arrived with solar-powered battery packs that provided light and power for cellphones, laptops and printers. "Prior to that we were using a 12-volt car battery, which we had to haul out into the street to recharge," Thompson said.
The ability to scale from a disaster to a catastrophe is an important consideration, she added. "We have processes set for disasters. You have disasters, and you have catastrophes. You can't use the same processes for both, you have to think bigger and these Goal Zero folks came in with solar-powered battery packs that were rechargeable on their own."
NENA's Fontes said tips on how to preserve battery power on phones, especially smartphones, would be helpful. "How to shut down applications that are running in the background that can drain power," he said. "Those types of tips can help people manage the power on their cellphone."
Fontes said efforts to harden networks like what was done after Hurricane Katrina will likely take place. He said after Katrina businesses moved central offices away from basements and higher up into buildings. "We know there is placement strategically along the hurricane coast of fuel supplies," he said. "We know there are a number of things associated with credentialing both at the federal level and state level to ensure access by personnel in charge of restoring and moving fuel and supplies for communication purposes."
Wong suggested earlier preparation, long before a disaster strikes, such as educating community leaders about what to do during a disaster and where to get certain information. "We're [community leaders] the ones who know who is elderly, who needs medication or who has babies."
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