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How Facebook and Twitter changed disaster relief

Andy Wandilak, owner of Two Boots Pizza

Here’s to Andy Wandilak, the owner of Two Boots Pizza in Park Slope Brooklyn. On the day Hurricane Sandy decimated entire neighborhoods of New York, he offered to feed and shelter the family of a musician who plays at his restaurant. The guy’s descriptions of the storm’s aftermath were tragic. So Andy started cooking. He used Facebook and Twitter to ask the restaurant’s patrons for support. By the weekend, he was serving up roughly 1,500 cups of soup daily.

This kind of superhuman volunteering has always been central to any relief effort, but Hurricane Sandy has showcased how social technologies can cause Andy’s small initiative to scale quickly. Ad hoc relief efforts like Occupy Sandy have attracted attention for this already. An outgrowth of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, Occupy Sandy is a loosely organized group of activists-turned-volunteers who have been using the web and mobile devices to bring food, supplies and help to people in need. But beyond Occupy, there are many individuals who have stuck a flag in the digital sand and declared themselves the captains of relief efforts. Facebook groups I have recently “liked” include “Nobodies Helping Everybody” (168 likes), “Rockaway Relief” (9,311 likes), and “Giving Back to those Affected by Sandy” (3,975 likes).

In the hours after the floods subsided last month, there’s no question these social technologies enabled fast efficient communication. The New York City Fire Department turned to Twitter to help identify emergency needs. Displaced people turned to Airbnb to find beds, which New York Airbnb hosts volunteered to share free of charge. Heck, my sister, having heard from a friend that a nearby shelter was underserved, updated her Facebook (FB) status that she planned to make a trip down and an hour later, she had 20 bags of coats and toiletries and two lasagnas to bring.

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But social media has downsides, too. Now that Facebook and Instagram have made documentarians of everyone with a smartphone, Hurricane Sandy may have spawned the most documented disaster relief effort of all time. There’s one boat in the middle of the street somewhere in the Rockaways that shows up on my Facebook feed nearly every single day, snapped by a different friend of a friend. But more transparency doesn’t equal more accuracy; in fact, just the opposite. A captivating image can become an Internet meme regardless of its veracity, while less compelling images are overlooked. And the Internet is not yet great at giving context to any event that doesn’t happen in realtime. In a fast-moving relief effort, a Wednesday morning image could have changed drastically by Friday afternoon.

Also, rumors and misinformation spread as swiftly as the calls for help. Case in point: does anyone really know whether the Red Cross deserves criticism for a lethargic response to the storm? Among my friends and neighbors in Brooklyn, hating on the Red Cross abounds. There is a belief it has been slow to respond and inadequate in its efforts. I won’t address whether this is true because I don’t know. Here’s what is true: when I ask why my friends are so certain the Red Cross has failed, they often report they’ve been down to a shelter, or a friend has, and the Red Cross wasn’t there or was undersupplied. As any decent reporter knows, one experience doesn’t sum up a relief effort, but on social platforms, that one experience can be broadcast widely.

I wanted to better understand the relief efforts that Facebook and Twitter have supersized, so last Thursday I took my own trip down to Andy’s kitchen, which had been relocated from his restaurant patio to the Old First Reformed Church in Park Slope. The chapel had been transformed into a warehouse for supplies. Earlier in the week, two large buses had arrived from Baltimore, stocked with dog food and pampers and canned goods collected by a local radio station.

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One of the volunteer coordinators, Sara Angevine, toured me through a kitchen with a half-dozen volunteer chefs and an office papered with addresses and delivery needs. Sara had never helped run a soup kitchen before; she jumped on Facebook shortly after the storm to tell friends to drop food in the vestibule of her building, figuring she’d bring it by a local shelter. She connected with Andy, who had started to cook, and began to help him figure out where all the food could go. To do this, Sara, Andy, and others went down to the coastal neighborhoods of Brooklyn to scout out locations and contacts. Sara has spent most days since then calling her contacts every few hours to see who could use more food. She posts the needs on her Facebook page (“We need drivers at 10am”), which, along with the official Two Boots page, has become a makeshift news outlet for the relief effort. The church, led by Pastor Daniel Meeter, volunteered to act as a fiscal pass-through for donations to the effort, which Sara and Andy both began collecting through links on their pages.

Ten minutes after I arrived, I found myself riding shotgun in a Toyota RAV 4. The car’s driver was a recipe writer named Heather Johnston, who had connected to the effort through the church. We were transporting 300 cups of soup—and 200 or so turkey sandwiches on walnut bread. “I cook, and I’ve been cooking here for the last few days,” Heather told me. “But they really needed drivers so I thought, ‘well, I have a car and I have gas right now.’” After winding our way through city streets for half an hour, we reached Howard Beach, where children in backpacks were picking their way home from school across piles of debris. A large sign read “FEMA Please Help Us.” We crossed the bay to the Rockaways and banked left into a more impoverished area.

We made our first drop-off at a cafeteria inside a housing project where a line of people stretched out the door. A policeman said they’d begun gathering with carts at 5am. “There’s really nothing around that’s open,” he said. Our contact, Sam, asked for 150 cups of the soup, which we brought into a kitchen were volunteers were handing out peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. We then called Sara, who gave us directions for our second stop.

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About 20 blocks down the road, a middle-aged African American woman named Ms. Sharon had set up a table beneath a tarp in the parking lot of the Super Clean Laundromat. A food truck more frequently seen feeding the midtown lunch crowd was distributing sandwiches on the other side of the lot, so Ms. Sharon passed on our sandwiches and pointed to a small section of the table to unload the remainder of our rapidly cooling soup.

It was late afternoon, and the light, with its relative safety, was fading. We still had 200 sandwiches and no idea where to take them. As we unloaded, three bearded men with the signature “Occupy Sandy” duct tape name tags spilled out of an old Dodge caravan with cases of water. I chased after the car and rapped on the window to ask if the guys could use 200 or so sandwiches. “Sure,” a guy called Noah replied. “We’ll take them. We can distribute them.”

Later, back at the church, I sat down with Andy to talk about the future of his relief efforts. The last food dispatch had left for the day, and Pastor Daniel Meeter had checked in to make sure he knew how to lock up. Andy had done a similar thing after 9/11, he told me—helped with some cooking for people who needed it. “It was different then. That was before Facebook and Twitter—there’s no way we could have done anything this massive.”

What happens next? Trucks of supplies are still arriving as more people learn about the Hurricane Sandy Relief Kitchen, as they have now branded their effort. But Andy must return to work at some point; Sara must return to her studies. Meanwhile, the businesses will not come back in the neighborhoods Sam and Ms. Sharon serve for a long time—if ever. The group had a large Thanksgiving meal planned, and they hope to continue offering meals on Wednesdays and Fridays for as long as the donations and the volunteers and the need and, of course, their energy, holds.