A tornado rips through your city, destroying hundreds of homes and killing dozens of people.

Power is out. Power lines are down. Roads are blocked and covered with debris, making it next to impossible for emergency services to efficiently respond for search, rescue and recovery efforts.

When the dust has started to settle, how do you as a city get the word out immediately, both to residents and people nationwide who may have family members in your city or want to offer assistance?

You use Social Media.

A day after a tornado barreled through Joplin, M.O., killing more than 100 people, 5 Facebook pages were created about recovery efforts and missing persons and survivors.

The Joplin, MO Tornado Recovery page had 138,281 people “like” the page within 48 hours of the disaster.

Posts include information from Joplin residents about which streets are closed/blocked, donation drops sites, benefit concerts and phone-a-thons, a local restaurant that was serving free lunch, and people nationwide asking how and where they can help; one woman from Louisiana who said she was driving to Joplin with a car full of diapers and formula.

There’s also the Joplin, MO – Missing Persons & Survivors Page, which had more than 4,300 followers by Tuesday morning. People looking for information about their loved ones are posting on that page. They are also updating the page when loved ones are found.

The City of Tuscaloosa, Alabama has also been using Facebook and Twitter as a means of spreading information about tornado relief efforts there. The Tuscaloosa City Facebook page has more than 3,000 followers and more than 4,700 people follow @Tuscaloosacity on Twitter.

The information shared on these sites includes volunteer resource center hours, recycling drop off locations, updates on storm debris removal, school schedules, photographs, facts and figures, including this one on May 14: @tuscaloosacity Of the 7,274 residential structures impacted, 2,375 were destroyed, 2,349 had major damage, 1,025 had minor damage & 1,525 were affected.

It may not even be possible to get on a computer or mobile phone following a disaster in your city to update a Facebook status or Tweet, but those are the first places people seeking details about the disaster will turn to for information.

That’s why it is so critical for cities, police departments and fire services to use social media on a regular basis – before the big one hits. City residents should know ahead of time that if there’s a disaster, they can also turn to Social Media for information from local officials. These are vital free resources that will help you keep the public informed and safe following an emergency management situation.

Social Media is not meant to replace your use of local media to get the word out. It’s an added resource, and in a time of crisis, you need all the help you can get.

Stephanie Slater

Stephanie Slater became the Boynton Beach Police Department’s Public Information Officer in April 2007, following seven years as a newspaper reporter. Slater, a New York native, is a graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, where she majored in print journalism.  Slater is the spokeswoman for the Boynton Beach Police Department, serving as the liaison between the officers, the media and the public. She writes the department’s press releases, provides television news interviews, maintains the department’s Web sites (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, MySpace) and oversees the department’s Officer of the Month program. Slater is a member of the National Public Information Officers Association. Follow the Boynton Beach Police on Facebook (www.facebook.com/boyntonbeachpolice) and Twitter (@bbpd).