Wheary: Sandy through the social media filter

"Facebook, Twitter, and personal and media blogs offer

"Facebook, Twitter, and personal and media blogs offer a seemingly unlimited amount of photos and stories of devastation, and it's impossible to process it all as we wade through in hope of finding answers," writes Jennifer Wheary. (Credit: Paul Tong)

For anyone in the path of superstorm Sandy it's been a week of questions, with many important ones still unanswered. As Sandy approached and raged, we wondered: How bad could things get? For millions in our region, that question has been devastatingly answered, in many cases with unthinkable results.

The shocking reality played out not only before our eyes, but online and via social media. As long as power and Internet connectivity held out, we monitored government, weather and traditional news sites. And for many of us, we obsessively checked Twitter and Facebook for updates on friends, the path of the storm, and directions from local authorities.

From all of this we drew comfort and vital information. "Stay safe," friends texted. "Right now, 911 is receiving 10,000 calls per half hour. Please, please, please only call 911 for life-threatening emergencies," tweeted Michael Bloomberg's @NYCMayorsOffice.


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And we also found some much-needed levity. As Sandy moved through, Miguel Bloombito -- the mayor's fictional alter ego, created by New Yorker Rachel Figueroa-Levin during Tropical Storm Irene last year -- tweeted from @ElBloombito in bad Spanglish: "Stay awayo from los dowño lines de poder! Electrocuto! Que zappo!"

Internet analytics firm Topsy reported that nearly 3.5 million tweets were sent with the hashtag "#sandy" in the 24 hours surrounding the storm's landfall. Users were uploading 10 Sandy photos per second for a lot of the storm, according to Instagram. Now that the storm has passed, Facebook, Twitter and the Internet in general continue to explode with documentation and discussion of the aftermath.

After all this stress and shock, the tristate area now faces far more complicated questions, many of them open-ended: What's next? How do we recover? When will the power be back on? When will transportation be running regularly? When will things get back to some semblance of normal?

Facebook, Twitter, and personal and media blogs offer a seemingly unlimited amount of photos and stories of devastation, and it's impossible to process it all as we wade through in hope of finding answers. We are dazed and feeling the effects of a real and sustained threat to basics we all took for granted a week ago. Physical safety, food, shelter, clean water, a hot shower, electricity, a pleasant walk in the park or on the beach, and the stability and predictability of our daily routines feel more cherished as they become more distant.

What we are seeing now is that there is strength in the number of Sandy survivors. There's also a collective consciousness that much of the petty, generic stuff we worried about before we had heard a hurricane was heading our way is a lot less relevant now. The past few days have resulted in a shift of priorities and resources.

Talk to anyone who works in emergency services and who has responded to disasters, and you'll hear that in the days and weeks that follow tragedy, people often lose their patience and their hope. It's easy to get frustrated with the fact that recovery takes time. For all the computer-generated models we saw over the weekend about Sandy's expected path, the next stage is almost worse; it's unchartered territory.

But acts of heroism abound, some profound, some simple. When New York City's MTA buses started rolling again around 5 p.m. on Tuesday, @TWULocal100, the city's public transit union, tweeted: "MTA buses are moving in selected routes on Sunday schedule. Everybody take a deep breath. We're gonna make it through this."

Even if we're not sure how.

We are still charging up, obsessively going online and checking our smartphones, looking for answers. Federal, state and local authorities, utilities, and local business are updating us constantly via social media. Many relief organizations and grassroots efforts are using the Internet to connect those who want to help with those who need it. Emails and status updates keep coming from friends, family and acquaintances, checking in and reaching out with offers of and requests for assistance.

We are slowly starting to move forward. There is no other choice.

Jennifer Wheary is a senior fellow at Demos, a public policy organization in Manhattan.

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