During winter 2014, residents across south Louisiana faced an unusual situation of road closures due to ice buildup.
People had questions, and in a culture that increasingly turns to the minicomputers many carry — from cellphones to iPads — residents turned to social media to find out road conditions.
Luckily, state and federal agencies are getting more comfortable using the technology.
“The first ice storm, we didn’t use it as much as we did in the second one,” Rodney Mallett, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation and Development, said of the two ice storms that were several days apart.
For the second storm that winter, he said, the department took photos and videos of work being done to keep the roads open and posted them to Facebook and Twitter.
“We didn’t just want to tell people that the roads were dangerous; we wanted to show them,” Mallett said.
Although the department was putting out news releases about road closures and other effects of the ice storms, information coming through various social media sites allowed people to ask questions and get answers almost immediately and in a way that could be shared with others.
In all, the DOTD Facebook page reached more than 44,000 people during the February 2014 ice storm, almost doubling the monthly visits to the agency’s Facebook page.
Adding social media as a means of communication also helped answer residents’ questions about why certain roads were closed. For example, Interstate 49 was the last highway to open and people wondered why.
“We took some pictures and said, ‘Look at how icy it is,’ ” Mallett said. “What we learned is, actually show folks.”
There’s something about seeing what is going on that conveys the message better than just written updates, and on social media, the information can be shared easily with people who never thought about signing up for a DOTD news release.
“I think we were surprised how many people would ask questions and share information,” said Indira Parrales, public information officer at DOTD. “We saw they were engaged.”
Since the ice storm, Mallett said, they’ve been working to get other information out via social media.
“It makes more people go to the site if they know it’s an active site,” Mallett said. “We’re kind of growing with the technology.”
Not everyone is comfortable using all of the available technology, so DOTD expands its call center staffing during emergencies.
“This came out of Katrina. We really didn’t have any kind of call center set up before then,” said Brendan Rush, customer service manager at DOTD.
In normal times, the call center is there to answer questions about projects or to provide information about road closures for people who aren’t comfortable online or don’t have access to 511La.org.
Mike Steele, spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, agreed that during the ice storms, it became clear just how effective posting information on Facebook could be in getting information out.
“We realized this is a good way for us to share information that people need when we have a crisis going on,” Steele said.
Because the office itself doesn’t have a lot of people in the field during an emergency, Steele said, the department relies on information from partners like the Louisiana National Guard, State Police, local first responders and others to provide information as they all communicate with the central emergency operation center.
Social media also allows the agency to share information that might be interesting to some followers but doesn’t rise to the level of importance of notifying the media, Steele said.
Although many older people may get their news in more traditional ways, “with young people, they’re relying more and more on social media for their news gathering,” he said.
Social media has been an emphasis for the National Weather Service Slidell Office for several years, and the office has been expanding its effort to include short, live segments for radio, TV and the Internet to put a face to the warnings the service has been putting out for decades.
“We’re going to use that to convey impact and risk,” said Ken Graham, meteorologist in charge in the Slidell office.
“People hunt for the solutions that they want,” he said, but seeing a real person talk about the dangers of a particular storm really helps to convey their message.
“We’re going to be aggressive with that,” he said of using social media.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.