How Madison Helped Madison Patch Cover Superstorm Sandy

While covering the storm, I stayed in touch with readers through social media and used their accounts of the storm, along with photos and videos, to help me report on the storm.

By Pem McNerney

Studies of disasters have shown that the media is an essential player in warning the public about imminent natural disasters, encouraging people to heed essential warnings during those disasters. The media also can help the public return to a sense of normal as soon as possible after a disaster. The coverage on Madison Patch of Superstorm Sandy shows how the tools of hyperlocal Patch sites can be employed in concert with other social media tools to achieve all of those objectives before, during, and after big storms and other disasters.

Madison Patch readers first learned about the possibility of Superstorm Sandy on Monday, Oct. 22 (, after the town’s deputy emergency management director let me know that this one was on a track that could make landfall nearby. This was a full week before the storm hit. At this point, the town’s emergency management officials were beginning to prepare for the storm, and so it was time to let readers know they had to prepare as well.

In addition to letting readers know that they should take the traditional steps of preparing their house, preparing to evacuate if necessary, and making other preparations, I reminded readers that Patch would be a central source of information before, during, and after the storm, on our Patch site, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

I also made plans to go to a safe place to go because my home is located in a mandatory evacuation zone. I picked an alternate location that would most likely have electricity and an Internet connection throughout the storm. I located and secured a spot about 45 minutes inland in a town that had its own local electric company, in a house that was about a block from that town’s police station, so that if power did go out, it would be restored quickly.

The coverage on Madison Patch from that time including tracking the path of the storm and keeping town residents informed on a 24/7 basis about everything they needed to know to evaluate what they had to do and when they had to do it. Combining information from local, state, and national sources, the coverage informed readers about

  • how best to prepare for a weather emergency,
  • which gas station in town would have a generator and therefore gas during and after the storm,
  • how to sign up for emergency alerts and information from the town and state,
  • mandatory evacuation orders and repeated admonitions as to why it was important to heed them,
  • road closures,
  • power outages,
  • travel bans locally and statewide.

I used the website, Facebook, and Twitter as reporting tools in addition to reporting out to readers on these sources. This was particularly valuable as people in town began to wonder about the extent of power outages, where roads were blocks, and what they could expect in terms of weather going forward. At one point there was a lull in the storm, and readers were warned that it was not yet over, that they should stay in a safe place, and that they could expect more high winds and dangerous conditions within a short period of time.

The reports coming in on Facebook and on Twitter allowed Madison Patch to connect neighbors to each other, and to information from local and state emergency officials. Even at the height of the storm, we kept the conversations going so people would have a sense of what was going on in the outside world, beyond the howling they heard outside their windows. When it came to publishing information and photos from readers, I was always careful to caution readers not to venture out in dangerous conditions, particularly at the height of the storm. I repeatedly warmed people that getting a photo of the storm in progress was not what we wanted, and that we didn’t want people to be out in the storm, creating a situation where emergency responders would have to rescue them.

Here is an example from the Madison Patch Facebook page of how social media tools were used facilitated conversations among readers, using that conversation both to keep people in town connected with each other and as a source of news for the site:

Following the storm, Madison Patch readers had all the information they needed to get their lives back to normal. Homecoming was rescheduled, Halloween was held downtown. In the absence of support from the electric utility that served the shoreline, local police were taking matters into their own hands and, with chainsaws and bucket-loaders, clearing the streets of fallen trees ( — with video). Line workers were being shipped in from all over the country, and deployed from a local spot near a Madison beach. The story on Madison Patch took readers to that spot and to breakfast with the workers, putting a human face on the men and women who were working night and day to put the lights back on ( — the story was posted with video that was lost after the switchover to Patch 2.0). This was important because some people were frustrated by the slow pace of recovery and were starting to take it out on these workers.

Electrical workers from all over the country came to Madison to help put the lights back on after Superstorm Sandy. Residents were frustrated by the slow pace of repairs, and so it was important to put a human face on the workers and explain why the work was complicated and taking so long. Photo credit: Pem McNerney

With the help of readers reporting in on the site and social media, Madison Patch readers were informed about all of that, along with vital information about what they could expect election day, when exactly (within minutes!) the lights came back on downtown, when the local movie theater was up and running again, when the shelter was open, and even, from a local bird expert, how to help traumatized birds. Following the storm, Madison Patch readers had all the information they needed to help others who were hit harder and sustained larger losses, along with information about FEMA, the Red Cross, and other services they needed.

The coverage on Madison Patch and associated social media tools including Facebook and Twitter exemplified the best of hyperlocal community-supported reporting, along with the most essential information from state and national sources, through storytelling, photography, and videography.

The essay, "How Madison Helped Madison Patch Cover Superstorm Sandy" is included in the book, "Disaster Communications In A Changing Media World."

The essay, "How Madison Helped Madison Patch Cover Superstorm Sandy" is included in the book, "Disaster Communications In A Changing Media World."

For this coverage, I won a first place award in the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists 2012 Excellence in Journalism contest, General Reporting Series, online in 2013. Also, the story about my coverage is scheduled to be  included in two emergency management textbooks,  and “Introduction to Emergency Management” and “Disaster Communications in a Changing Media World.”

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