When hurricane Sandy reached New York City on Monday October 29, the lights went out at the Dachis Group office in Chelsea. And stayed off for several days. Thanks to stern warnings from our mayor to evacuate (if you lived near the water) or hunker down (if you didn’t), no one was stranded at the office, though we all ended up stranded to some degree or another after the superstorm tore through town. Without subways. Without internet. Without power. Without heat. Without hot water. Without gas for the car.
I live in Red Hook, Brooklyn on the cusp of what was deemed a “Zone A” evacuation zone. My husband and I decided not to evacuate, figuring we could always walk across the street and be in the safe zone, or something. Mid afternoon on Monday I was meeting over Skype with a coworker in Austin, and he sent a link to this image that was getting passed around the internet. Someone in my neighborhood had tweeted his view of rising flood waters. This looked more serious than I’d expected. I started furiously searching social media for the latest storm images (something I would continue to do, like scratching an itch, over the coming days and weeks).
After visiting the other side of Red Hook to see for ourselves just how the incoming storm was progressing — the tide had gone out, and with it much of the water, but the next high tide and the storm surge were yet to come — I returned to Facebook to reassure friends and coworkers that Red Hook was not under water. We were fine, for now. I Instagrammed my own snapshot of the blue-gray afternoon, curious raincoat-clad neighbors ankle deep in water on Conover St. I remained glued to #Sandy on Twitter and listened to the winds picking up outside.
That evening around 8:45 pm the lights began to flicker in our apartment. Had they just gone out altogether it would have been less ominous. In the dimmed light, I caught a glimpse out the kitchen window of the parking lot on the other side of our yard’s back wall. A car, headlights on, was becoming submerged. The ocean had traveled four long blocks to reach our street. We ran down to check on the basement and found water gushing in. We fished out my husband’s drums, rescued my wedding dress and then fled for our car lest that became engulfed too.
Over the next several days, time seemed to stand still. We were lucky to have friends across town to take us in. With nothing else to do, I spent hours online gathering news on what exactly happened, and how bad it was. I found myself becoming one of those awkward oversharers on Facebook, understanding like never before the comfort to be found in times of distress by being able to reach out to your network of friends so easily. Fishing for sympathy, maybe, but I felt I’d earned it at least a little. I was a refugee. Our power was out for ten days. Everything in the fridge spoiled. The basement flood destroyed all variety of personal possessions, from the replaceable (camping lantern, mittens) to the irreplaceable (home movies, an antique lamp, old photos and letters). As I write this nearly a month later we are still without heat or hot water.
But those of us impacted directly by the storm were not the only ones clamoring on social media. In fact everyone was talking about Sandy, seeking, perhaps, a way to connect with what happened, to be a part of the zeitgeist, and to feel they are helping in some way. And it’s thanks in no small part to social media that this urge to connect and contribute was quickly channeled into the formation of grassroots efforts and organizations to handle the clean up.
I’m fascinated by the way social media has enabled people like never before in history to quickly share information and self-organize. For breaking news, I no longer turn on the radio or the TV, I check Twitter. Tuesday morning after the storm, I was relieved for a tweet from a friend in Gowanus, Brooklyn who took a pic of my food truck (a side business I run with my husband) still standing and reasonably dry. A newly launched Red Hook Rebuilds Facebook page informed me of a meeting for local business owners. From there I got access to SBA loan applications, FEMA info and legal aid.
One of the more touching stories of social media outreach post-Sandy involved someone posting a request to the site TaskRabbit: “See If My Dad Is Alright” from someone who couldn’t reach her father, nor get to Staten Island to check on him. A member quickly accepted and reported back that he was fine. The site had several such requests right after the storm, and today has lots of requests for “Sandy Relief Efforts” and “Sandy House Chores.” TaskRabbit was even moved to donate their service fees to the American Red Cross for two weeks.
I had my own urgent request for which Facebook was enormously helpful. I had hundreds of dollars of frozen food for my business that wasn’t going to stay frozen long if I didn’t relocate it to a working freezer. Within an hour of posting my plea for available freezer space on Facebook, I had a half dozen offers from friends and acquaintances one neighborhood away. Some I didn’t even realize were my neighbors! We shuttled whatever inventory we could manage to a food blogger’s basement freezer and to the empty freezer at an artist friend’s studio, preserving enough food to keep us in business for a few more days.
Because we own a food truck business, I started receiving troubling messages via Facebook shortly after the storm from residents of harder-hit neighborhoods in The Rockaways and Staten Island pleading for us to bring hot food to their community. One woman in Broad Channel wrote to me that her neighbor had offered her money for her Halloween candy, because she was so desperate to eat. Our followers on Twitter informed me which local hurricane shelters were most in need of hot food. I shared these messages through Google Groups to the other NYC Food Truck Association Members. Those who had not lost power like us, and still had gas in their tanks, hurried to the darkened parts of town armed with hot food and power strips to recharge cell phones. (Google Groups also helped us alert one another of open gas stations for our trucks as the week wore on).
The grassroots efforts of the food trucks grew more organized by the end of the week as JetBlue and the Mayor’s Office teamed up to help fund free meals. JetBlue happens to be a Dachis Group client who uses our Campaign Performance Monitor. A peek at the data showed nearly 200 unique individuals participating in spreading the word through Twitter, including influential tweeting food trucks, and community organizations like Let’s StartUp NYC, Occupy Sandy and Well + Good NYC. The partnership not only helped feed our neighbors, it highlighted the good will of JetBlue and the local food trucks. A win for everyone.
By week two of the aftermath, it seemed like almost every business within a block or two of the river had a crowdfunding project up on Indiegogo, Kickstarter, LuckyAnt or SmallKnot. Help us rebuild! I clicked share, retweet, like. I passed out on our friends’ couch most nights, cell phone or laptop in hand, CNN in the background, fatigued from all the searching and sharing and info digesting.
Although the hurricane is over, I still feel flooded with information on all the relief efforts and things I should be tending to as a renter and a business owner to protect my rights and rebuild what was lost. At times social media did overwhelm me with the surge of #Sandy updates, but all told I’m truly impressed at the channels it opened up, the connections it helped us make, and the way it sped along the recovery.
I’m still glued to #Sandy news on social media. The clean up is far from over.