Social media becomes a lifeline during hurricane

At 10 p.m. on Oct. 29, as Hurricane Sandy was bearing down on the northeastern United States, filmmaker Sandi DuBowski, known for his 2001 documentary “Trembling Before G-d,” posted an urgent online message.

His elderly parents had declined to leave their home in Manhattan Beach, N.Y., a Brooklyn neighborhood that sits on a small peninsula flanked by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and Sheepshead Bay on the other. The neighborhood is in Zone A, low-lying areas of New York City that the mayor had ordered evacuated in advance of the looming storm.

“The water has made it up to the first floor of the house,” DuBowski wrote on Facebook. “They have gone up to the 2nd floor. Is there anyone who can rescue them and their neighbors tomorrow morning before the next high tide? I am scared how much higher it will go. Their power and phone is out.”

A parking lot full of yellow cabs is flooded on Oct. 30 in Hoboken, N.J. photo/ap-charles sykes

A flurry of messages followed, including contact information for relief organizations and city officials and simple words of prayer and encouragement. Friends reposted the appeal to their own Facebook walls to widen its circulation.

The next morning, a neighbor with a cellphone reached DuBowski’s mother, who had barely enough time to say she was alright before the phone went dead. DuBowski duly posted the update on Facebook.

“I’m so moved,” said DuBowski, his voice betraying the strain of the night before. “Hundreds of people were forwarding this and searching for any avenue to help. It was a harrowing night.”

For many trapped in New York and other northeastern cities besieged by the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, social media outlets — principally Facebook and Twitter — instantly transformed into lifelines, enabling residents to commiserate, appeal for help (or offer some) and share information, including pictures and video from the storm.

Afterward, Facebook emerged as a vital source of information in assessing damage. A photo of a tree breaking through the roof of the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut, posted on Facebook Oct. 30, garnered a dozen comments in under an hour, including a link to make a donation.

But the real energy occurred as the storm was unfolding late on Oct. 29, and continued even as the power losses began in earnest, with users switching to cellphones to keep in touch. Often, their final messages were announcements that power had been cut and they were going mobile, enabling their friends to construct virtual maps of the cascading power outages.

“I could follow, ‘Oh, I know Ivan is on 34th and 9th. OK, they’re down,’ ” said Alexis Frankel, who spent hours posting storm updates. “You could follow the domino effect of how the storm was progressing, which I found particularly helpful.”

For a brief period, Facebook functioned in ways that critics claim it never does: bringing people together for actual, in-person socializing. At Ahava Zarembski’s house in Philadelphia, this resulted in a pre-hurricane lunch and dance party.

“That happened because I was posting online what I’m doing, which was basically cooking and baking and telling people to come over. And they did,” she said. “People felt the need to be together.”

Ben Harris

Ben Harris is a JTA correspondent.