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Ice covered Kentucky in late January 2009, causing massive power outages, downing trees and wires, and ravaging the landscape, during what was deemed “The Storm of the Century.” The city of Madisonville, located in Hopkins County, was hit hard. The county’s approximate 46,500 residents were left without basic services, and vast numbers lived in this darkness for weeks.

As soon as he got cell phone reception back, Madisonville Mayor Will Cox began using his Facebook account to reach out, by posting status updates and responding to direct messages from his iPhone. His proactive use of wireless technology in response to the crisis led to him being honored with a VITA (TM) Wireless Samaritan Award by The Wireless Foundation and The Wireless Association® in June.

“I was posting from inside electric substations, and I would say, if you’re in a certain neighborhood, then your power is coming on in the next five minutes, and then, bang, it would come on.”

By Tuesday, January 27, the storm had completely knocked out power. Phone and cable lines were down, inches of ice covered everything in sight, downed trees littered the ground, and people were left in the cold as temperatures dropped into the teens and single digits at night. “We were 100-percent black,” Cox remembers. “The first two days, city government was just trying to survive,” he said.

Cox recalls, “I crawled out of my cubby hole that I had built in my bed, on Thursday morning. I picked up my cell phone and I had cell service again. I don’t even know why I did it, but I logged into Facebook,” which up until this point he had only used to keep in touch with friends, family, and old classmates. At 5:06 am, he posted a status update to his page, which read, “Will Cox is bent but NOT broken!”

To his surprise, the response was immediate. “Within a matter of what seemed like minutes to me, people instantly started responding to that post,” Cox reports. Since many Madisonville residents were still without cell service or power, most of the initial feedback came from worried loved ones living elsewhere or residents who had left town during the storm. As residents got services back, “they started chiming in,” he says, adding, “everyone was starving for information.”

A single local radio station, WFMW (730 AM), which had a generator, stayed on the air. Other than that, Facebook became the best option to get information out. Cox remembers, “We would go in with candles or flashlights, and the only thing running was the broadcast board. Sometimes I would be sitting in the radio booth at three o’clock in the morning and updating my Facebook page at the same time.”

“We got some TV coverage, but nobody locally could see it because nobody had any power. Plus, the trees had torn down all of the cable lines. At the local level, it was Facebook and that one radio station, and that was it,” Cox said.

Emergency Status Updates, In Real Time

Over the course of the following weeks, Cox utilized Facebook to give real-time updates on what was being done to restore power, quell rumors and paranoia, and provide reassurance. In some cases, frightened loved ones contacted the mayor directly through his Facebook account pleading for wellbeing checks on friends and family who they had not heard from, fearing for their safety.

“I had a rash of friend requests from high school and community college kids,” which gave him the impression that young people are saying, “Look, I’m buddies with the Mayor, that’s so cool. If it helps get a younger generation involved in public service, and gives them a greater understanding of city government and government in general, than that’s fantastic.”

In other cases, Cox used Facebook to stop rumors from flying. For example, he wrote, “Will Cox: is chasing silly rumors, the newest being that we are evacuating the town. NO evacuation is planned.” During a crisis, “the last thing we want is panic,” he says, adding, “we were not going to let these rumors get out of control. So when we got one, I would post a response to it, and I would try to make a joke out of it to make it sound ridiculous.”

As word spread that the mayor was posting updates in real time, his page became a centralized resource for people to find reliable information about the progress of utility crews, advice about keeping safe, announcements about school closings, and other critical information. During the course of the storm, he added over 200 new friends. Since these updates were coming from the mayor, “People knew that it was good, solid information,” he says.

“I was posting from inside electric substations, and I would say, if you’re in a certain neighborhood, then your power is coming on in the next five minutes, and then, bang, it would come on,” Cox recalls, giving an example of how real-time communication with his citizens gave his words undeniable credibility. Facebook “helped the community know that we were working. Even if you were in a neighborhood that wasn’t going to get power for another week, you knew that we were working our way towards you and that we weren’t just sitting at city hall eating donuts,” he says.

From his perspective, real-time feedback from citizens “was encouraging,” he says. “We got good feedback that kept us energized and operating with a sense of urgency.”

Lessons Learned

The end of the ice storm crisis did not end the mayor’s infatuation with Facebook. Rather, his experience using the tool inspired him to continue posting status updates, in order to keep citizens informed and engaged in civic discourse. To this day, Cox’s personal Facebook page, as well as the city of Madisonville’s fan page, keeps residents informed on a daily basis, and they provide a means through which city officials can collect feedback from citizens.

According to Cox, “Public officials always struggle with how to get information out to their citizens. Citizens are pulled in so many directions in their daily lives that sometimes you wonder if they are paying attention. You figure that they are, but you don’t get a lot of feedback at the time.” The mayor admits that some of the comments people post on the pages are negative, “but that’s good because you can see where you need to do better,” he says.

Cox also credits Facebook with driving media attention. For example, during the ice storm, the Kentucky League of Cities started following the mayor’s page and drafted a press release that caught the attention of major news stations. “The work we were doing with Facebook and our communication efforts was what helped break us through the other 100 communities in Kentucky that were struggling with the same thing, trying to get their word out,” he says.

Facebook also “puts you in contact with a whole new generation. Some of the high school kids and college kids don’t even really use their email anymore. They text and they use Facebook,” he relates, adding, “I had a rash of friend requests from high school and community college kids,” which gave him the impression that young people are saying, “Look, I’m buddies with the mayor, that’s so cool,” he laughs. “If it helps get a younger generation involved in public service, and gives them a greater understanding of city government and government in general, than that’s fantastic,” he concludes.
According to Cox, “If you are a city official, you are crazy not to do it. I’m a huge believer now.”

 

Jennifer Eberbach is a freelance journalist and professional copywriter. You may contact her at 734-929-2964 or jen@jenthewriter.info. Visit her online at www.jenthewriter.info

 

 

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