Thousands of Americans are currently at risk from some of the worst Mississippi River flooding in decades. This past Sunday, 17 million gallons of flood water per second walloped residents of the city of Vicksburg, Miss. The Army Corps of Engineers, which has been helping to stem the floodwaters, is also embarking on another project—an ambitious real-time social media clearinghouse for flood victims.
A series of Facebook pages operated by the Department of Defense—Floodfight 2011 – Operation Watershed and local Army Corps of Engineers pages for the Vicksburg, New Orleans, Memphis, and St. Louis districts have become primary information sources for residents facing record-setting flood levels. Army Corps of Engineers employees post multiple daily updates, regularly reply to threads, and actively encourage residents to post to the page with any questions or concerns they might have.
The idea is simple: By answering questions online on a site that people visit in the course of their daily lives, the Army Corps of Engineers informs the public more efficiently than they would by television, newspaper, or phone—while saving precious manpower hours to boot. Both Army Corps of Engineers employees and savvy locals offer assistance to residents dealing with the floods through the pages.
According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the pages are regularly monitored by employees as part of their duties.
Steve Rochette of the Army Corps of Engineers Operation Watershed Joint Information Center told Fast Company that the idea started with the Birds Point New Madrid Floodway near Cairo, Illinois:
We developed a Facebook page prior to the operation of the Birds Point New Madrid floodway because it offered an opportunity to rapidly provide information, photos, and video to a concerned public. We used the page to dispel rumors, provide updates, and share useful information.
Dispelling rumors and providing accurate information appears to be one of the primary goals of the Army Corps' social media initiative.
Another important role the Facebook pages play is simply offering a place to vent for those affected by the floods. Thousands have already lost their homes and even more have lost their farms and workplaces to an unrelenting torrent of water. NPR's Greg Allen captured a tragedy that many Americans are only vaguely aware of:
Army Corps of Engineers Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh said deciding to activate the floodway was not something he did lightly. At a news conference, he said, "I've known many of the people who have lived and worked in the floodway for the past three years. I consider them friends, and certainly making the decision to put this in operation was a difficult decision."
More than 130,000 acres of farmland were destroyed when the Birds Point floodway referenced above was opened. More than 100 homes were also evacuated.
For those dealing with the worst Mississippi River flooding in decades, the Army Corps' social media initiative gives something of a public square to air grievances in.
Emergency measures are currently being enacted to prevent flooding from reaching Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
[Image: Courtesy Army Corps of Engineers]