The Dexter Disaster: A Personal Observation of Community Disaster Response

By Matthew W. Seeger, Ph.D., WSU Contributor

Tornado picture

Credit: Photo by Frank Peters at Flickr (

On March 15, a probable F 2 tornado tore through my hometown of Dexter, Michigan. At 5:07 p.m the first warning siren echoed through Dexter while torrential rains and 1 inch hail came down.

Twenty-six minutes later a tornado skipped through this small village of about 4,000 middle class homes, subdivisions and stately trees, leveling about 15 homes, and severely damaging about 100 houses. More than 200 residents were displaced. Despite immense damage, no serious injuries were reported.

My house was spared and except for some water in the basement due to power outage to the sump pump was spared all but the most minor of inconveniences.

This was my fourth serious tornado and gave me the opportunity to observe community disaster response close up. Continue reading


Tracking a disease outbreak with Twitter

By Fred Vultee, WSU contributor

The Chroncle reports on a study from the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene comparing the tracking of a cholera outbreak in Haiti by normal methods and by following Twitter feeds.Social media apparently correlate well with official tracking but appear more quickly, and because messages were often sent on the spot as patients were being seen, offered good information on where the cases were.

Here’s a link to the Chronicle piece:

The original article is Chunara, R., Andrews, J.R., and Brownstein, John S. (2012). Social and News Media Enable Estimation of Epidemiological Patterns Early in the 2010 Haitian Cholera Outbreak. American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, 86, 39-45.

Social media in emergencies

By Fred Vultee, PhD, WSU contributor

How close is close? Not as close as you thought – at least, not always. What makes an emergency event seem proximate, and how proximity and authority interact to make an emergency message seem relevant and complete, are among the questions our research group asked in a study for the just-completed NCA conference in New Orleans.

We wanted to expand recent studies of social media content in emergencies by looking at the effects that content has on social media users, but we also wanted to let experiment participants provide us a clearer idea of what ideas like “authority” and “proximity” meant. As it turned out, a message about flooding at a freeway overpass next to the building where we conducted the experiment scored lower on proximity than a message about meningitis at campuses “across the country.” This reminded us that proximity is often cultural as well as physical, which isn’t too surprising, but it also suggested another dimension of proximity: whether a risk is contained or avoidable. The nearby flooding is easy to avoid, because you know where it is. News of knee-deep water at some unspecified place elsewhere on the freeway system might be farther away, but if you can’t pinpoint it, you can’t be confident that you’ll avoid it. Continue reading

Penn State Fumbles

By Matthew W. Seeger, Ph.D., WSU Contributor

Colleges and universities are not immune to crises and disasters, yet they seem particularly confused by these events and unable to respond quickly and effectively.  This was vividly illustrated once again by the horrific sex abuse scandal at Penn State University.

Generic Sign saying University

Universities and colleges are complex and vulnerable to crises such as what happened at Penn State. Credit: Kevin H.

Colleges and universities are generally open systems with multiple, complex missions and stakeholders.  They employ complex technologies, use a very wide array of inputs, and with large institutions, some with over 40,000 students and budgets in the  billions of dollars, are dizzyingly complex.   Moreover, they generally lack central centralized control, creating circumstances where no single agent can see the entire operation and associated emerging threats.  They are governed by a number of state and federal regulations, including the Cleary Act, requiring public disclosure of crimes committed on university campuses.  This federal act is grounded in general principles of right to know and the fact that university officials have sometimes withheld important information. Continue reading

Radio’s Critical Role in Crisis Communication

By Patric R. Spence, Ph.D., Guest Contributor

Radio often serves a critical role during a crisis. Today, people have a variety of technologies readily available that can deliver news nearly instantaneously. These technologies range from the most commonplace and affordable, such as television and radio, to the newest cutting edge technologies, such as smartphones and tablets. Yet despite the amount of available information technologies, radio and television have remained vital to the public in times of crisis. Although television has taken over radio’s role as the primary crisis news source, radio has remained central to the public’s information seeking behavior both during and after crises.

Emegency Radio and Light

An emergency radio is essential for any disaster preparedness kit. Credit: coddogblog,

A crisis can create conditions in which television stations or other news outlets are directly affected (i.e., they were unable to broadcast or otherwise disseminate news). This is not an uncommon occurrence. For example, loss of electrical power more or less means loss of television broadcast. It is more difficult for a television station to continue broadcasting during a power outage than it is for a radio station. Battery powered radios are a fairly common household device. They exist commonly as alarm clocks; people have them for camping and other uses. Also, radios that can be operated on hand crank power are often marketed specifically for disaster preparedness. There are fewer options available in terms of alternative powered televisions.  The mobility, technological simplicity, versatility, widespread availability, and inexpensive nature of radio make it a central component of a crisis communication system.

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The Disaster Panic Myth

Person holding rally sign saying Don't Panic

This person has seen too many disaster movies. Credit: thisisbossi,

By Laura Pechta, Ph.D. Candidate, Blog Administrator

One of the most enduring disaster myths out there is the one that people tend to panic during a crisis. This is reinforced by the dozens of disaster movies that show people running around and screaming and media images showing people looting stores and carrying out flat screen TVs and stealing food. I like to call this the “Chicken Little Syndrome” (“The sky is falling!”).

So it is not surprising that emergency management agencies feel the need to control the flow of information in fear that if the public knew exactly what was happening chaos would reign. But through decades of study, sociologists have demonstrated that crises or disasters tend to enhance social solidarity and suppress conflict. In fact, groups of people often emerge to help in search and rescue efforts, to provide food and water, and to provide emotional comfort and a sense of community. The increased use of mobile devices and social media by the public has helped increase this sense of shared community.

Continue reading