Friday, April 29, 2011

Tornado-Torn Town Recovers on Facebook

Best of Facebook Stories
by Best of Facebook Stories on Saturday, 30 April 2011 at 00:47
Minutes before 7 p.m. on April 16, Harley Barker stopped by his parents’ house in Gloucester County, Va. on the way home from dinner. When he stepped back outside 15 minutes later, the entire street was in shambles.

Harley had just lived through the now infamous EF-3 Gloucester County tornado. The twister hit speeds over 136 mph, leaving 163 homes damaged and three residents dead.

Gloucester County community members sprang to action after the storm to repair the damage done to homes, schools and cars. Photo by Harley Barker.
“I went outside and could smell the pine trees [that had been ripped in half],” Harley said. “It was perfectly calm outside [except for] car alarms and sirens coming from all directions. It was out of a movie.”

As Harley went door-to-door to check on the neighbors, he used his mobile phone to post updates on Facebook about the tornado’s aftermath. With power and landline phones down, mobile phones were the only way for Gloucester residents to communicate. Instead of watching TV news, they turned to their friends’ updates on Facebook.

“The idea hit me to use a Facebook group as central information hub because a lot of people have the ability to access this and get information,” Harley said.

While Harley was out in the field, his friend Tracy Holt-Stipple began to put the Gloucester Tornado Recovery group together. She had recently moved from one of the houses that was hit and wanted to help her former neighbors.

“I knew their immediate needs and wanted to get them information fast,” Tracy said.

Before connecting with Harley, Tracy had posted every piece of news she could find in hopes that the victims would find help on her personal profile. When she created the Recovery group, it immediately became the No. 1 resource for the victims, volunteers and even the local news.

Local broadcast station WAVY 10 knew that people’s power lines were down, so they used their Facebook page to solicit photos of damage and to ask for tips. The anchors used Facebook on-air and looked to community members’ uploads to direct their coverage of the storm.

When a resident posted a photo of Gloucester’s decimated Page Middle School to WAVY’s Facebook page, they sent a crew out right away.

“It’s like having thousands of reporters in the field,” WAVY Webdesk Editor Tim Moreau said. “It’s great because we can’t be everywhere.”

The Gloucester Tornado Recovery group created Easter baskets for the families devastated by the tornado. Photo by Tracy Holt-Stipple.
The Recovery group is currently working to replace the school’s lost resources, such as its youth football gear, with donations. Last Sunday, the group also organized community members to donate, create and deliver Easter baskets to families victimized by the tornado.

“To be able to use [Facebook] as a tool for this type of thing [has] been irreplaceable,” Harley said. “When you see other people putting forth positive effort it creates that ball of energy that just rolls forward.”

As of last weekend, the Facebook Group teamed up with the Gloucester Department of Emergency Services response team and the Community Emergency Response Team to act as an official county resource. Visit the group at Has Facebook ever helped you unite your community in an emergency situation? Tell us at   

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