By Lindsey Davis
The first slew of posts were jokes about Dorothy and Toto coming to Massachusetts.
Within hours, hundreds of images and words of shock flooded online social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter as a series of tornadoes tore across Western Massachusetts on June 1.
“I saw pictures of the damage to my classmates’ houses [posted on Facebook] before the tornado even left the area,” recalled Laura Sauriol, 17, Monson’s Facebook heroine during the hours and months following the tornado.
As she crouched in her family’s basement to take shelter from the tornado, Sauriol wondered how those in her town were faring. She logged on to Facebook to see a picture that a classmate posted of his house completely leveled by the tornado. She ran the idea of making a page by her Mom who gave her the go ahead. Within a few hours, the teenager was bombarded with dozens of messages and friend requests.
“Everyone was posting so many questions,” said Sauriol. “Instead of having the information pass from one person to the next, I decided to make a group so that everyone could get the right information about what to do.”
For this one small town, social media sites provided a virtual town center in the aftermath of the June 1 tornadoes. “Monson Tornado Watch 2011,” the Facebook group created by Sauriol now has more than 2,000 members, with the group now serving as a bulletin board for volunteer projects, community news, neighborly advice and support.
“Monson is one of those small towns that everyone is trying to get out and do something bigger,” said Sauriol. “After this, people are realizing that Monson is not that bad. People can come together. We are learning lifelong lessons.”
Maintaining the group became a full-time job for Sauriol, a girl who does not own a cell phone.
“Sometimes I would not fall asleep until three a.m. because there was so much to do on the group,” said Sauriol who started her first year of college at Westfield State University last September passing off her Facebook-updating responsibilities to her mom, Jo.
The success of Sauriol’s group spawned the creation of Facebook groups for several other groups in Monson including Monson Animals Lost and Found, First Church Tornado-Help, Monson Homes available for Tornado victims, Chainsaw Response Team and Street Angels.
Monson resident and realtor Karen King established a group on Facebook called “Monson Homes available for Tornado victims” to post any listings that she could find to make sure everyone had a roof of their heads.
Feeling that she could do even more, King founded the “Street Angels,” a small group of volunteers that dedicate their time, money and energy to provided resources and assistance for all the needs of community members.
“We wouldn't be where we are today with our recovery if it weren't for the ability to reach out to so many people with social media. It is like one big giant megaphone,” said King.
“When used in a positive way, it can make a difference in so many peoples lives," she said.
In response to disasters around the country, online communities have become the communication tool of choice during times of emergency for individuals and major organizations. Agencies such as CDC Emergency and the American Red Cross have taken to the social media stream with 1,244,357 and 254,056 followers on Twitter respectively.
When the Red River crested at record flooding levels earlier this year in North Dakota and Minnesota, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was reaching 2,600 people with updates on the situation, according to a report compiled by CreditLoan.
According to a survey conducted by the Red Cross this past summer, in the event of a natural disaster, over half said they would use social media to let loved-ones know that they were Ok.
If in trouble, 22 percent said they would use online messaging through email or posts on a website to seek help while 20 percent would walk to the nearest police, fire or EMS station.
Sixty-nine percent agree that emergency response agencies should rely more heavily on social media sites to convey emergency strategies in times of emergency.
Support groups have also been using social media to encourage tornado victims to reach out for help.
MassSupport Network, a 12-member emotional support assistance organization created in response to the June 1 tornadoes and funded by FEMA, SAMHSA, MEMA, the Department of Mental Health and Riverside Community Care-Riverside Trauma Center, uses a Facebook group to promote awareness of its presence in the communities affected.
As her family and friends went out to volunteer throughout the summer, Sauriol became the guardian of the overwhelmingly popular Facebook page. In the first week in tornado recovery mode, community members congregated on the page to announce where free meals would be served, which neighbors needed help clearing trees, who needed clothing for their children, what insurance paper work to file, what would FEMA aid cover, how to repeal a condemned house and so on.
“At some point, I was like a town celebrity,” said Sauriol.
Just days after the storm, Gov. Deval Patrick made a spontaneous trip to Monson to speak at the Monson High School graduation that was relocated to an outdoor venue to accommodate an influx of guests. Impressed with her efforts, the governor spoke of Sauriol’s dedication throughout his speech.
“It was like he was speaking to me the entire time,” said Sauriol. “I have never had something like that happen before.”
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About the authors
Students in Steve Fox's Investigative Journalism & the Web class at UMass-Amherst have teamed up with the Globe to take a close-up look at the painful process of rebuilding from the June 2011 tornadoes that killed four and devastated communities in the Springfield area. Their work will also appear in the Boston Globe. Steve joined the journalism faculty at UMass-Amherst in 2007 and has 25 years of experience as an editor and reporter for print and online publications, including 10 as an editor at The Washington Post's award-winning website.