Social Media Proves Itself as Emergency Tool

When Robert Peyton joined the micro-blogging service Twitter during its earliest days in 2006, it was just a place to rave about New Orleans' finest eateries and keep in touch with friends.

But as the 39-year-old lawyer tried to keep tabs on Hurricane Gustav and the fellow New Orleanians whose lives were upended by the storm, the service turned into an invaluable source of information, he said.

Unlike blogging services that allow users to post comments only from their computers, Twitter lets posters "tweet" from cell phones, smart phones and computers. All tweets -- 140-character messages -- are sent to the user's Twitter page online, but others can sign up to receive them via their own cell phones, smartphones and computers.

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When Peyton lost power in Baton Rouge, he could receive tweets from a New Orleans Twitter community that spanned the Southeastern states. In turn, from his own smartphone, Peyton sent messages to the nearly 100 people who had signed up to receive his updates.

Peyton acknowledges that the information distributed through Web sites, SMS messages, instant messages and other social networking sites is only as good as the person sending it. But as he rode out the storm in Baton Rouge, he said it was one of the only ways to get accurate local reports from New Orleans.

"The national broadcasts are just kind of silly and alarmist," he said. "It's nice to have something to balance that out."

Mark Folse, a project manager for a financial institution and another New Orleans blogger, agreed.

In the past few days, the self-proclaimed "weather geek" has funneled information he uncovered from reliable weather Web sites to his Twitter page. Twitterers with interests or expertise in other areas provided their own additions to the online conversation.

"It's been of tremendous value," he said. "People take on a role for themselves and then feed it into the larger group."

On his 12-hour trek to Memphis, Tenn., with his family, he received a constant stream of updates from other evacuees about the traffic, the weather and even a Labor Day Memphis music festival.

"Embeds" -- bloggers who stayed behind in New Orleans -- provided hyper-local information about various neighborhoods, he said.

Sheila Moragas, another local blogger who evacuated to a hotel near the Louisiana State University with her husband and toddler, said one of the "embeds" offered to check out her house when the storm passed and then Twitter about it for her.

"Twitter becomes your online neighborhood," she said.

CNN and other major networks reported ony on the places with the most action, she said. But because Twitter users live throughout the city, they could provide more local coverage.

Since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005, blogger Folse said, a core group of bloggers has been building a Twitter community that would be useful in emergency situations.

Maitri Venkat-Ramani, a 10-year blogger who was instrumental in building this network, said, "During Katrina, we were helpless, scattered to the winds and at the mercy of national news networks. We didn't have a lot of people on the ground and didn't have a lot of connection to each other.

"After Katrina, we [made] unified efforts to talk about recovery on blogs and form a comprehensive network of blogs ... that would really elevate the [most] important news pieces."

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