Networking through Disaster
When the levees broke in 2005 and water engulfed the city of New Orleans, George “Loki” Williams, a New Orleans native whose family connection to the city goes back hundreds of years, evacuated to New York City.
In New Orleans, the phone towers were down. Many cell phones in the area were not getting service. Most of Williams’s friends had evacuated to different cities around the country, and those who had remained were reachable only via text message or e-mail. Desperate for first-hand accounts of what was happening in his city, Williams flipped through television channels and scoured newspapers and online news sources for anything that would give him useful insight into what was happening on the ground. He didn’t find much. Williams said, “We were looking at complete failure, not just on the government end, but also from the mainstream media. They could have covered a lot of useful things that could have helped people. Instead of useful information it went towards, “’Oh my God, there are looters!’”
Like many other New Orleanians in exile, Williams turned away from the useless mainstream media and logged on to the Internet. Through the group blog he had started weeks before the storm, HumidCity.com, Williams reached out to other New Orleanian bloggers—most of whom he’d never met—requesting that they collaborate to post information and resources for the larger community on the site.
At its height, there were 15 bloggers regularly posting to HumidCity.com on topics ranging from FEMA and the government response to the flood, to analyzing and critiquing coverage by mainstream media, to personal narratives detailing the experiences of those attempting to rebuild their lives. The blog soon drew the attention of New Orleans community members and mainstream media alike and has since received coverage from local radio stations, the BBC, Air America, and the Times–Picayune.
Upon returning to the city, the bloggers began meeting for monthly “geek dinners,” reinforcing their online community with a physical one, and started a digital newsletter to keep the group alive. What started with a few lonely bloggers has since spiked to a network of nearly 300.
New Orleans is better known for its thriving music culture than its digital savvy, but four years after Katrina wiped out an entire city, citizen journalism and social networking tools have become inextricably interwoven into the fabric of New Orleans’s post-Katrina culture.
Home to more than 3,000 charities and nonprofits, 270 neighborhood associations, and dozens of coalitions and community groups, New Orleans is in the midst of a civic renaissance. Frustrated with inept and inefficient local and federal governments, the people of New Orleans have harnessed the vast power of the Internet to network, fill their needs, and reach out to the traditional media. Armed with blogs, Twitter, Yahoo groups, and wikis, nonprofits and citizen groups are transforming grassroots community, organizing into a potent force that is helping to determine how New Orleans will be rebuilt.
“In the aftermath of the storm, the digital community here began to unify in a fashion that I’ve never seen anywhere else in the world,” said George Williams.
Geek dinners were just the tip of the iceberg. Today, many members receive press releases from local nonprofits. Many others have moved beyond blogging, going on to launch online advocacy groups, nonprofits, and community watchdog sites of their own.
One such organization is Levees.org, launched by mother-and-son team Sandy and Stanford Rosenthal. Using e-mail listings and YouTube videos to demystify the main causes of the Katrina flooding, the Rosenthals advocate for legislation that would improve the levy system.
Another site, CitizenCrimeWatch.org, is an “open-sourced citizen watch group” that uses mapping tools to identify local crime waves and hotspots, inviting residents to add their own crime statistics and anecdotes.
Yet another group seamlessly blends online social networking with old-fashioned, face-to-face relationships. Unified Nonprofits of Greater New Orleans consists of 50 or so people who are involved in New Orleans nonprofits. Members meet every Monday in person to share tips with one another and also keep in touch over a listserv.
Other community sites include Net2NO, a social-networking site aimed at helping home-grown New Orleans businesses and nonprofits; American Zombie, an investigative and government watchdog blog; and dozens of others.
Social Networking Solutions to Disaster
Post-Katrina New Orleans is not unique in its use of Internet technology in the face of a natural disaster. According to Edward Vielmetti, a freelance consultant on system networks and Internet technology, “Whenever there is a disaster, emergency networks mobilize. Blogs and chat forums generally used for mundane, ordinary interests activate, helping people to pass news along that isn’t just one-to-one, or even one-to-eleven, but one-to-tens-of-thousands.”
An example of this phenomenon occurred when, in 1995, a major earthquake hit Kobe, Japan and disrupted phone networks. Even though this was at the beginning of widespread Internet use, chat rooms immediately became the primary means of communication, providing residents with live, moment-to-moment news updates and diffused, first-hand accounts of what was happening on the ground in the damaged city.
Citizens’ emergency response to Hurricane Gustav, which hit New Orleans in August 2008, surpassed their response to Katrina due to the advent of Twitter feeds. Williams attributes his timely escape from the city during Gustav largely to live Twitter updates from those in New Orleans who announced which roads were closed and which streets were flooded or blocked by debris.
Yet what makes post-Katrina New Orleans unique is the degree to which digital networks have become ensconced in physical communities, even four years later. This digital revolution is not limited to bloggers and tech geeks—many people who had barely used the Internet before Katrina for more than sending e-mails are some of the leaders of the grassroots digital activism movement.
Take Karen Gadbois, a 53-year-old textile artist and mother of a teenage girl. Four years ago, Gadbois didn’t know what a blog was. She had never owned a digital camera and didn’t know that photo-sharing Web sites like Flickr.com even existed.
Now, she’s widely known as the poster child for New Orleans multimedia citizen-journalism. By taking pictures of her neighbors’ houses and posting them to Flickr and SquanderedHeritage, the blog she founded in the aftermath of the storm, she managed to notify neighbors that their houses were on the narrowly publicized demolition list, allowing them to take action in time to save their homes.
Her blogging effort was pivotal in exposing a scandal within the New Orleans Affordable Housing (NOAH) program, where millions of dollars in funds designated to help fix the homes of elderly and poor were lost to corruption. Some of the houses allegedly fixed by NOAH did not even exist, while others were owned by slumlords and the families of politicians.
Gadbois’s work resulted in an FBI investigation; press coverage in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the local paper, Gambit; and a Peabody Award-winning investigative multimedia project.
“That’s when I started to understand the power of the alternative media meeting with the mainstream media,” said Gadbois.
Recently voted “New Orleanian of the Year” by Gambit, New Orleans’s alternative weekly paper, Gadbois has become deeply entrenched in the New Orleans nonprofit scene and has helped to found the New Orleans Institute—a resource center for the vast community of budding nonprofits that dot the city.
Neighborhood Associations and the Net
Neighborhood associations have been particularly effective in exploiting digital grassroots tools to amplify their voices and weigh in on how their neighborhoods are rebuilt.
According to City-Works, a New Orleans nonprofit focused on responsible urban planning, post-Katrina New Orleans has witnessed an explosion of neighborhood associations, spiking from roughly 200 moderately active networks before the storm to close to 300 today.
“With the ineffective federal, state, and local government response to the storm, neighborhoods have been extraordinarily capable of identifying their needs and wants,” said Jim Livingston, City-Works’s executive director. “These groups have become an integral part of the planning process after the storm and are becoming quite savvy about how to get their agendas across to decision makers.”
In addition to traditional organizing methods—weekly meetings, canvassing, and word-of-mouth—neighborhood associations have added blogs, Web sites, and Yahoo groups to their arsenals. The neighborhood with the largest online presence is Broadmoor, a largely working-class community that was decimated by Katrina. When the Broadmoor Improvement Association (BIA) learned of Mayor Ray Nagin’s plans to turn their neighborhood into a “green dot”—a drainage park for other, wealthier neighborhoods—the resident group turned to the Internet.
Using simple computer programs like Microsoft Word and Adobe Acrobat, the BIA used listservs and Yahoo groups to directly engage the community in the process of drafting an official plan for their neighborhood. Drawing on the collective experiences and opinions of hundreds of people within the Broadmoor community, they created a city plan so good that it drew the attention of city planners at Harvard University.
“It was a truly democratic process,” said Hal Roark, the director of Broadmoor Development Corporation, the community development branch of the BIA. He added that prior to the storm, no one had had any experience with city planning—but Roark found this lack of experience to be a strength. “The fact that we had no conception of what we were supposed to do gave us absolute freedom to do what was right.”
Now the BIA is one of the most powerful neighborhood associations in the city, spawning six niche Web sites that serve youth and volunteers, showcasing a Katrina personal-history project, and regularly receiving interns and expert advice from Harvard, Bard, and MIT.
Then there’s the NorthWest Carrollton Civic Association. When the city decided to make an exception to local zoning laws in order to build a large Walgreens in the center of an empty lot, leaving little room for a much-needed grocery store, the community association went to the media. When the newspapers rejected the story, the association members took matters into their own hands. They started a neighborhood blog and became their own media outlet.
“We discovered that when no one is paying attention in the print or TV media, you can get people to pay attention though the blogosphere,” said Jenel Hazlett, the founder of NorthWest Carrollton Civic Association who—along with Karen Gadbois—became one of the leaders in the blogging venture.
By reaching out to other neighborhood associations, the community launched a highly effective e-mail campaign, requesting that other neighborhoods e-mail blast Walgreens and the local government in coordination with their blogs.
The group’s insistence paid off. By August 2006, Walgreen’s changed its plan. The site not only included the much-needed grocery store, but it also complied with residents’ demands that the buildings fit in with the historic character of the neighborhood.
“Once we got started and realized the power of the post, it made a tremendous difference in our capacity to lobby for our neighborhood,” said Hazlett. “Through our efforts, we were able to make the government realize we’re here, we’re going to be here, and we have opinions.”
Sometimes disaster brings out the best in a community. In New Orleans, it’s been transformational. As members of the community come together to rebuild their city, they are also pioneering new applications of social media to give citizens a stronger voice in the democratic process.
Although the New Orleans technological revolution might be new, in many ways its use as a community tool is a natural extension of traditional New Orleans culture.
“This is New Orleans. It’s always been a close-knit community,” said Hazlett. “Now, we’re just that much closer.”
A former Robert L. Bartley Fellow with the Wall Street Journal Asia and a freelance reporter, Malia Politzer is currently studying New Media and Investigative Journalism at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.