Lessons Learned from 2011 Joplin Tornado Show the Importance of Social Media in Disaster Preparedness and Response

On May 22, 2011, an F5 tornado spanning more than a mile wide tore through Joplin, MO, killing over 120 people and leveling many areas of the city. Fifteen miles south of Joplin and less than two hours after the tornado hit, the mother and daughter team of Rebecca and Genevieve Williams launched a Facebook page in search of accurate information during the response. What would become of the “Joplin Tornado Info” page is something they never anticipated. “We were just private citizens when we started that page,” Rebecca said. “We really had no idea that it would go viral and become the information source that it did.”

Joplin, MO after the May 2011 tornado

Joplin, MO after the May 2011 tornado (Provided by Rebecca Williams)

Rebecca Williams is the managing administrator for the page, which now has more than 45,000 likes and continues to share current volunteer opportunities for rebuilding the community. She has worked as a crisis intervention specialist, psychiatric nurse, home health and labor and delivery nurse. Genevieve Williams is the creator and project manager for the page, and has worked in marketing and advertising for nearly 10 years. Both were happy to lend their skills and expertise to aid in the community’s recovery efforts.

For the first few days following the tornado, Rebecca and Genevieve managed the page by themselves, squelching rumors, answering questions, and directing people to needed resources, from food and shelter to tetanus shots. Many of the water and gas lines were shut off in Joplin, and citizens were using their phones to turn to social media for 24/7 information. “We invented what we did as we went along,” Rebecca said. “We used journalistic integrity, we self-corrected, and we rarely interjected personality into our posts. We were just connecting needs with resources.”

The page quickly grew and administrators were added to help manage the information flow. Administrators coordinated with other pages such as the local Red Cross and nearby local health departments by sharing their posts to the page’s over 40,000 followers. However, one challenge that emerged was having a central location for static information that was getting lost in the Facebook newsfeed; thus, the website joplintornado.info was created to house this information.

Now years into the recovery, Rebecca and Genevieve are advocates for municipalities and counties to develop disaster social media preparedness plans. Using the lessons learned from managing the “Joplin Tornado Info” page, they have been involved in helping organize pages for other disasters such as “Branson Tornado Info,” “Missouri Flood Info,” “Oklahoma Wildfire Info,” “Colorado Wildfire Info,” and many more. The lessons learned from the Joplin tornado are also shared in the whitepaper, “The Use of Social Media for Disaster Recovery,” published in partnership with the University of Missouri Extension. The whitepaper explores the role of social media in the aftermath of the tornado and also shares best practices, templates for posts, and suggested social media tools.

In May 2014, the “Joplin Tornado Info” page was redesigned after the three year anniversary of the tornado and continues to share information with its followers. Recovery efforts are still underway in Joplin, and the page posts volunteer opportunities to assist with this work. Rebecca also posts to the page for news from severe weather alerts to amber alerts, and other preparedness reminders such as pet preparedness and how to avoid the flu.

For communities ready to use social media in their preparedness efforts, Rebecca and Genevieve recommend determining what disasters are likely to hit your community and claiming that Facebook page now. Initial social media efforts including setting up the page, establishing administrators, doing a pre-launch, and always keeping search engine optimization in mind. “I am passionate about social media infrastructure preparedness,” Rebecca said. “Every community should have a go-to page for disasters. You have to build up your community, not just build the page.”

More information about social media for disaster preparedness and response:

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