I live in an area of the South with the unfortunate nickname of ‘Tornado Alley’. I’ve lived in this area for the majority of my life, and we’ve all become accustomed to being on guard for the potential for tornadoes in the Spring in April and May, and then again in the Fall. I live in the NW corner of Alabama, and typically the tornadoes come at us from the West, through Arkansas, northern Mississippi, and then continue on toward Huntsville and Georgia.
I’ve been extremely lucky to have had dozens of tornadoes come through this general area in the last 30+ years I’ve lived here, but I’ve never been directly in the path of one. I was afraid that might change on April 27th, 2011. Typically, the most we have to deal with is heavy rain, maybe some wind and a few fallen tree limbs. But this time was different. There were high winds, and the power was knocked out quickly. I was using my smartphone to stay connected to Twitter for as long as I could. Sure enough, there was a tornado coming from Mississippi that was headed toward the NW corner of Alabama. Finally, the power on my smartphone gave out, and the winds got stronger and for the first time in my life, I heard tornado sirens here. I didn’t even know we had them, but apparently they were coming from a high school about 5 miles away.
After about 30 fearful minutes, the winds finally began to die, and the sky began to clear. I would learn later that the tornado had missed where I was by about 5 miles, but it cut a devastating path. As expected, it moved past us and on toward Huntsville, but grew considerably weaker as it did. Power finally came back on and by then the storms were almost at Huntsville, but didn’t pose as grave a threat as they had to this area.
The power finally came back on, and I got back on Twitter and there were a lot of people asking if I was ok and I happily told them all was fine. At least that’s what I thought. What I didn’t realize was that a second tornado had torn through the state, this one had come through central Mississippi, and had brought catastrophic damage to Tuscaloosa, and was headed toward Birmingham. I saw a few people tweeting that ‘it’s bad’ in reference to Tuscaloosa. I have a group in Twitter created of reporters that cover Alabama sports, and most of them are based in Tuscaloosa. I quickly checked the tweets from that list, and this was one of the first ones I saw from @AaronSuttles:
I was hoping the damage wasn’t as bad as everyone was tweeting, but then I started seeing the pics:
The Tuscaloosa News’ staff did a great job of leveraging Twitter as a tool to do live (and heart-breaking) reporting that day, updating the rest of us as to the extent of the damage, as well as how to get help to those affected. And last week their efforts were rewarded with The Pulitzer Prize. Ironically, last year’s entries were the first that considered content created via social media tools as part of the effort in covering a breaking news story.
I’ve always said that the companies and organizations that succeed in using social media are the ones that use the tools to create value for the people they are trying to connect with. For journalists, social media tools such as Twitter provide a way for them to report breaking news stories almost as they are happening. They are able to give live accounts of what they are seeing and experiencing within seconds of it happening, where before the best they could hope for was a story that would appear in the next day’s paper. In this instance, social media not only enhances the journalist’s ability to report the story, but also creates much more valuable information for the people following them.
Even if the information is about such devastating events as the April 27th tornado.