The very best part of doing emergency and crisis communications is that it’s a living art. Art in the sense that, well, some do it good, some do it poorly, and the state of the art is always improving. Living in the sense that every day there are new examples of the art in action,and each new instance informs subsequent instances. Every day is a learning experience, yet at the same time, required reading.
Hurricane Katrina is to many folks in public health, mass care, emergency management, public safety and human services, a watershed event. Many of us who started in their respective fields after 2006 refer to the event as a primary reason why they chose their pursuit. Oh, the ink that has been spilled over the preparation and response to Katrina. What we learned from those days has remade many of those very same fields. Reputations were made, and destroyed, based on what happened seven years ago on the Gulf coast.
Amazingly, we are on the precipice of a similar situation. A massive hurricane, Isaac this time, is bearing down on New Orleans once again. How will we, as risk communicators, as media, as government communicators, as the public, act? Have we learned from Katrina? Have we learned enough?
Already, the very state of the world has changed the face of this hurricane. Social media networks like Twitter and Facebook are veritable fonts of information offering minute-by-minute updates on the run-up to the storm’s landfall. And I’d have to believe that situations like when the only time the nation’s responders knew about hundreds of people stranded on highway overpasses was because a news chopper flew by won’t happen again, if only because (if it happened) half of those people will be on Twitter pleading for help.
While we’re hoping that the disaster doesn’t unfold the same way, I can already see how previous disasters have changed how information has been disseminated prior to landfall. One of the best practices I love to speak about is from our friends at JoplinTornadoInfo. And already there’s a HurricaneIsaacInfo page on Facebook. Staffed 24 hours per day by folks operating in another of my favorite case studies, the Virtual Operations Support Team.
The storm is big, and dangerous. But these two things give me hope that this hurricane will turn out differently.