For better and worse, Facebook and Twitter have emerged as natural disaster lifeline options #1 and #2 …at least in New York and New Jersey.
A distant third, fourth and fifth: Radio, phone and TV (it helps to have power).
As Hurricane Sandy bore down on New Jersey and my adopted hometown town of Hoboken on Monday, my wife and I were told via fire truck loudspeaker to immediately evacuate since we lived in a ground floor apartment. As we fled town, the fate of our ground level apartment would remain unknown for the next 36 hours. Only three steps (a stoop) separated our home and everything we owned from a street that would later become flooded with four feet of sewage, debris and dirty river water.
The questions as we fled town under heavy winds and rain were simple:
How would we know what was happening in and around it if and when the power went out?
Would our apartment survive?
It all seems so selfish now, considering the damage and rising death tools we’re seeing elsewhere in the area.
Jean (aforementioned wife) and I decided that staying with her sister’s family in Nutley (NJ) was our best option. After all, they were smart enough to buy a new generator, had plenty of gas to keep it going, and what seemed most important at the time, were offering copious amounts of food and spirits to make a difficult situation less difficult.
At first, life in Nutley was good: Italian sausage sandwiches for dinner, some fine Corona Light to wash it down, and mint chip ice cream for dessert. As we gathered in the living room, the storm was playing itself out on TV, and to that point didn’t seem all that bad as it approached making landfall.
That is…until a scary gust of wind prompted us to look out the window. A huge blue flash of light came next, followed by a gigantic tree crashing into a neighbor’s home. The same tree also took out power lines and three telephone poles like dominoes, the last of which crashed onto a car that had just pulled into its driveway. A middle-aged couple crawled out after the rear window smashed in behind them, fearful of dangling live wires draping the roof. They got inside their home and appeared to be OK, but it was surreal and sobering to watch something like that unfolding so quickly…
In the next instant, the lights went out. Those lights are still out as I write this (Friday afternoon).
No power, no cable TV, no way of knowing what was going on back in Hoboken.
But one thing was apparently working:
Without thinking, I logged onto Facebook to see what was happening back home. We did have a radio on, but coverage was primarily concentrating on downtown Manhattan after flooding began there first. What I needed was instant reporting from not just Hoboken, but my small bubble inside of it on 9th Avenue and Jefferson Street. Given that I was already used to the instant gratification that comes with everything from fantasy football updates to election poll numbers to a friend’s first date in real time, waiting for a story on Hoboken for even ten minutes was simply not acceptable in 2012.
At first, my news feed revealed nothing but cynicism:
“All hype” read one pithy post.
“Shouldn’t it be raining harder?” inquired another.
Apparently, the stronger gusts of wind we witnessed weren’t being felt elsewhere.
Five minutes later, however, everything changed back in Hoboken.
On Twitter, one friend living in Eli Manning’s apartment building near the Hudson River posted a photo that was petrifying: Waves of water out of a theme park ride violently overtaking what was thought to be an insurmountable pier on the north end of town. Still, given our apartment was 11 blocks east and five blocks south of that breach, the chances of that water traversing through town all the way to our location wasn’t even a thought.
Over on Facebook, the tone also began to change rapidly. Complaints of the media hyping the storm for ratings quickly changed to, “There a huge thing of water rushing down my street!!!” and “WTF??? Where is all this water coming from????”
Apparently, water was coming in from the Hudson River on the north and south ends of town…and not because of rainfall (which was relatively light) but due to Sandy’s massive storm surge.
The photos and even video of all of this happening was unfolding on my screen. I tried to text a neighbor to learn what was happening on our street, but kept getting an error message. Tried the same via Facebook, and somehow the message got through…
“Are you OK? How’s your apartment?” I asked.
“We’re fine. But lots of water just surrounded the entire building.” our friend Katie responded.
“Good to hear you’re well. Can you see if our apartment is OK?”
“Not good. The water is so high. I think you’re fuck*d.” she quickly responded.
I showed my wife the message. She immediately began to cry.
Not satisfied with Katie’s report (or refusing to believe it), I continued to follow my Facebook and Twitter News Feed…until 4:00 AM.
While info on the state of the apartment was still ambiguous (we would later learn that most people we knew were trapped in their apartment buildings), the news that would creep in post-by-post was still horrifyingly compelling. Stories of friends trapped in apartments, trees falling on cars, cars actually floating away…all unfolding on a tiny iPhone.
Think of how far we’ve come: When I was a kid old enough to understand what was happening outside of a playground in the 80s, the choices in New Jersey for anything and everything were primarily channels 2, 4 and 7 (via rabbit ears). For 9/11, there was cable news, but as far as individual stories from people you actually knew in real time, status updates and tweets were gleams in Mark Zuckerberg’s and Jack Dorsey’s eyes.
But for all the positives around social media serving as the only community news source for those without power and even a battery-powered radio (you’d be amazed how many of my friends lamented afterward about not owning one), there was also the usual misinformation that spread quickly, including:
• False reports of the New York Stock Exchange being underwater spread faster than your average insider stock tip.
• A poignant photo of soldiers standing at attention in a monsoon at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier also made the rounds. Problem was, it was later revealed that the picture was taken in September.
• A photo of a shark swimming next to a flooded home…in the suburbs (all first believed by those posting and commenting, by the way).
What was more disturbing, however, was the behavior of my own Facebook friends (truth be told, like most, I’d estimate that 75% of my “friends” are people I wouldn’t invite to my own wedding). In other words, I take zero responsibility for the content below.
Starting around 7:00 PM Monday night, stunning photos began to emerge of Sandy’s systematic destruction. Whether it was the fires on Long Island, or shots of massive flooding taken from hi-rise apartments in lower Manhattan and Hoboken, or the utter devastation unfolding at the Jersey Shore, all comments on such photos were heartfelt and sympathetic.
However, above those comments and below those photos would be a jolly thumbs up from x-number of people who “like this.”
So…a question for all out there guilty of this: If a photo of a home floating down a street is posted, or of an iconic rollercoaster destroyed, or of rows of cars submerged on a city street, what’s there to “like” about them?
After reading a post of a friend sitting in the dark without power or heat and expressing anxiety about not knowing if their family elsewhere is safe, why give that a thumbs up?
If Facebook wants to turn its financial fortunes around, perhaps it’s time to invent that “dislike” option so many of us have been clamoring for.
And then there’s the posts of E-list comedian journalist Michelle Collins, whom I friended on Facebook during my days at Fox when she was a regular guest on Greg Gutfeld’s Red Eye. Just one day after the storm hit, Collins thought that the perfect time to promote her random appearance on… Judge Judy. Here’s what begging for attention at the worst possible time looks like:
“East Coast I’m on Judge Judy right now. If you know you don’t have more important “things” to “take” care “of”.
Forget the fact millions of East Coasters were and still are without power to even TURN ON a television (forget the storm coverage, put on Judy!). Or, you know, having more important things to take care of, such as waiting for the National Guard for a rescue from a freezing apartment, or surveying a decimated home or business on the coast, or working at an overwhelmed emergency room, as my wife has as an ER doctor the past two nights.
Hopefully Judge Judy sentenced Collins to waterboarding for being a certified idiot.
And then there’s the mindless political exploitation by those who are so petrified of Mitt Romney, they too decide to post messages that, trust me, in the aftermath of a storm and having your whole life turned upside down, no one gives a rat’s ass about regardless of political party.
“I guess New Jersey is in the 47% Romney was talking about. Because Obama is here to help and he’s out campaigning!” screamed one post.
“Romney is collecting food at a campaign event. Must be an election year.” said another, which included a link to a segment on MSNBC criticizing the Governor for such of callous act.
But with the bad, there’s the very good.
Many friends used Facebook and Twitter to direct folks without power to utility trucks and even homes with generators serving as charging stations for phones. Others provided tips on restaurants that were opening their doors during the day to serve whatever food they could. Some shared where food and clothing donations could be made. And individuals fortunate enough to have hot water generously were/are offering a warm shower and company to friends still in the dark and without heat.
In the end our apartment saw some damage, but we were luckier than those just right across the street. If we were positioned even one foot lower to the ground, the inside would be the same fishbowl hundreds of apartments in Hoboken currently are.
Facebook and Twitter: The good, the bad and ugly.
But it’s certainly better than the alternative.
Being left in the dark…
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