Social Media Vital to Disaster Response

July 8th, 2013
Adam Shahan, Assoc. Pastor of FUMC Moore, Okla.

Two of the most powerful tornadoes ever documented struck the Oklahoma City area during May.

The first hit May 20, a few minutes before 3:00 p.m. It was EF5, the highest rating for measuring a tornado's strength. With speeds up to 210 mph, it tore a mile-wide path 17 miles long through rural communities before hitting Moore, the city of 56,000 on the outskirts of Oklahoma City. The twister killed 24 people, injured more than 300, and destroyed 1200 homes, two elementary schools, a hospital, and scores of businesses.

The second tornado hit May 31. It was 2.6 miles wide—the widest ever recorded. And its speed peaked at 295 mph, second only to the world-record 302 mph winds recorded in the same area May 3, 1999.

Record keepers can estimate how many people were killed and injured, and how many homes and businesses were destroyed or damaged.  But no one can estimate the trauma that the thousands experienced by the countless men, women and children who were in the tornadoes’ path. Thousands are still grieving their losses. Many lost everything they had—including treasures money cannot replace.  But their losses paled compared to those who lost family members and close friends.

The Church Responds

In response to the overwhelming emotional and spiritual suffering, churches of all sizes—those who have denominational affiliations and those who don’t—are striving to do what God calls them to do: help people experience God’s love, even when their lives are in shambles, and they are nearly too wiped out to care.

To help bring comfort and hope to people, many spiritual leaders made use of social media.

For example, Robert Hayes, bishop of the Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church, wrote a message and prayer to reassure people who were hurting that God loves them and is grieving with them and will lead them through what the tough days ahead.  It was posted on the Oklahoma Conference’s Facebook page, and has been shared by 1l, 596 people.  

In addition to expressing God’s love with compassionate and inspiring messages on Facebook, churches made use of social media to help distribute supplies and other vital resources.

St. Andrews United Methodist Church—in addition to being an American Red Cross shelter—became a distribution warehouse.

"People assumed that since we were a Red Cross shelter, we were also a place where they could bring supplies that were desperately needed," says D.B. Bennett, senior pastor.  "Pickups started showing up with cases of water and packages of diapers.  We used Facebook to let people who needed know we had them available. 

Bennett says Facebook not only helped St. Andrews get the supplies to people who needed them, it helped them secure other supplies that were desperately needed.

"People would say, "We need shovels and rakes.  We would post their needs on Facebook, and suddenly here would come a pickup full of rakes and shovels."

Rallying Quick Response

A member of St. Andrews who teaches at one of the elementary schools told Bennett that Moore's four elementary schools were invited to an end-of-the year-event on the following Friday.  She and several other teachers and principals wanted to give the students—some of whom had lost everything they owned—a backpack filed with things they could enjoy and make good use of. That meant they would need 1200 backpacks within less than 48 hours.  

"We put an appeal for help on Facebook and before noon the next day we had 1200 backpacks and more were still coming in," says Bennett.  "So we gave 700 to another school in a neighboring community that had been hit by the tornado."   

First Baptist Church—a key center of ministry throughout the disaster—is also a Red Cross shelter.

Kyle Duncan, business administrator for First Baptist, pointed out that needs change rapidly during disasters.

"We post on Facebook that we need diapers, and right away we have more than we can use," he said. "So we post that we have too many diapers, and ask people to stop sending them.  Just then, Southgate Baptist tweets us, reporting they can use the diapers, so we post their need on Facebook."

Small Churches, Big Impact

New Life United Methodist Church— where worship attendance averages 70—was able to organize an event quickly using social media as well.

"Most of our members are past [the age of] being able to dig through rubble," said Shirley Pigg, a member of New Life. "Over the years, several of us have lost our homes in tornadoes. We were determined to find something we could do to help. We were especially concerned about kids.  So we decided to have a toy drive."

They announced the drive on Facebook, and donations and volunteers poured in.

"We got thousands of toys from all over the country," Pigg says. “People started volunteering to help us. By that time most of us who had been working in the drive were needing a break, so we were glad to get the help."

She says a mother in Michigan called and told her she would like to bring a carload of teenage girls to help with the distribution. Two teachers from an elementary school in Tulsa called saying they would like to come and help.  When the kids came for toys, enough volunteers from beyond New Life were available to help with the distribution.

Communication Breakdown

Just days had passed when May received its second pounding. Once again, the city of Moore was in the twister’s path. 

“Our church wasn’t damaged during the May 20th tornado,” says the Rev. Tish Malloy who was then senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Moore.  “But the May 31 storm destroyed our roof.”

The church had an even bigger problem, though.

"We couldn’t get in touch with our members,” Malloy said. “Telephone lines were down.  We didn’t have electricity. Our computers wouldn’t work, which meant we couldn’t communicate by email.  Many of our streets were blocked. Many of our members lived in heavily damaged parts of town; if they left their neighborhood they couldn’t come back."

Associate Pastor Adam Shahan solved the church's communication problem.

“I went a little north of Moore so I could get an Internet connection on my cell phone and accessed our church's Facebook page,” Shahan explains. “I posted that the church was still standing, and asked our members to check in with us on Facebook so we would know how they were.”

Members began posting their statuses on the church’s Facebook page. Their reports revealed that at least twenty families in the church had lost their homes and the homes of several others were damaged. Fortunately, no members were killed or seriously injured.

Malloy has since been appointed as a district superintendent in the Oklahoma Conference. She says she plans to insist that every church in her district develops a disaster response plan and make sure it includes the use of social media.

“One of the big lessons I learned during the tornado," said Malloy, "is that Facebook is not a toy.  It can be a vital tool of communication that we as individuals and as churches can use to communicate God's love.  We've got to learn to take social media seriously and use it wisely in all kinds of weather."

comments powered by Disqus