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After Joplin Tornado, Social Media Helps Victims Piece Together Lives

Following a devastating tornado in Joplin, M.O., that killed at least 89 people, residents found phone lines destroyed or choked with traffic. But text messages and social media weathered the storm.

One of the worst tornadoes in America history tore through Joplin, Missouri on Sunday night, killing at least 89 people and destroying at least a quarter of the town—an exact count of the devastation was impossible due to the disruption to local infrastructure. Joplin is a mid-sized community of approximately 50,000 people. And for a variety of reasons, the tornado ended up being documented by social media much more extensively than by national news television networks.

Much like another recent news story that broke on a Sunday night—the death of Osama Bin Laden—and like the successful ditching of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River in 2009, amateur journalists quickly disseminated and constructed a narrative on the spot. Twitter users found the service awash in a stream of requests for aid and prayers that were interspersed with photos and on the spot reports. The same phenomenon also occurred on YouTube and Facebook. While the networks rushed from the big cities and Joplin's local news media found themselves overstretched, local would-be journalists stepped into the lurch.

Post-tornado streetscene in Joplin, MO. Image via Twitter user @disguisedasshy.

The chaos in Joplin played out in interesting ways that would fascinate media theoreticians. With the disaster physically overwhelming phone lines and transportation disrupted due to devastation conditions, social media became a primary method of contact for survivors. According to staffers at the Wichita Eagle who reported on the scene:

On social networking sites, people with ties to Joplin and even those without were calling for prayers for the city. Some people were quick to post that they and their families are OK, or to get the word out that loved ones are missing or homes were destroyed. Others found themselves without access to phones because of overburdened phone lines, but able to text and use social media.

Users on Twitter quickly uploaded devastating pictures of the impact to Twitpic and other services. For just one example, a Kansas-based Twitter user named @parismyloveff uploaded pictures of the ruins of what used to be a local Home Depot and a Payless ShoeSource where two women disappeared.

Remains of Joplin, M.O. Payless ShoeSource. Image via Twitter user @parismyloveff.

Flickr also became a popular site for pictures taken on the ground post-tornado.

Others turned to YouTube to upload footage of tornado devastation as it happened.

One brave soul, puzzlingly, went outside to film the tornado from his patio.

Meanwhile, residents of Joplin turned to YouTube to make home videos of their neighborhoods being destroyed. In one heartbreaking clip, a Joplin resident explored the ruins of the city's primary hospital, which was destroyed in mere minutes.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services is currently allowing health professionals to volunteer for service in storm devastated-areas.

[Top Image: Twitter user borntorunnergrl]

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here.

Read More: Tweeting in Japan: The Good, the Bad, and the Panicked

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  • Ronald Box

     The nation has been watching the city of Joplin, Mo., since it was battered by a tornado. A 2nd outbreak of tornadoes might hit Joplin soon. The lower Midwest is still at great risk, as a new storm front is now looming above the area. Five states are at the center of the weather front. There's a strong risk of tornadoes hitting them. I found this here: Joplin, Mo., could face second tornado after devastation,

  • Kyle Eberly

    I'm the Community Manager at Life360, the world's largest provider of mobile family safety applications.

    It is terrible to hear of the devastation in Joplin, but the resourcefulness in using social media to stay in contact with family, report needs, and share locations is truly remarkable. Going through a disaster like this is never easy, but having the support of family makes us all stronger. On our mobile app we had 250 families share location updates, 89 said "I'm OK" to their emergency networks with Check Ins, and 4 sent panic alerts letting family members know where they were and that they needed help. We feel honored to be a part of keeping families together through hard times like these.