IMPACT

Hurricane Sandy: Red Cross, Other Relief Organizations See Social Media As 'Double-Edged Sword' For Relief Efforts

As Hurricane Sandy eases away from the East Coast and the cleanup begins, major charitable organizations are increasing their reach and personalizing relief efforts thanks to social media.

Melanie Pipkin, a spokesperson for the American Red Cross, said that Twitter and Facebook have allowed the organization to affect more people than it could in previous disasters. On Monday night, the number (90999) that the Red Cross made available so people could text message direct $10 donations was passed around Twitter at rapid fire. And as the storm surged, Pipkin said, thousands of posts per hour were mentioning the Red Cross, with Tweets from sources as varied as the WWE, Cindy Crawford, and Mitt Romney.

"As of 11:40 a.m. on Tuesday, we collected over 540,000 posts related to Sandy," Pipkin told The Huffington Post. "And the text-donation number was mentioned by lots of celebrities and other people with many followers, so that helped."

Though the staff at the Red Cross itself is small -- fewer than five are directly employed in full time social media operations -- Pipkin said that the organization has amassed a vast network of "digital volunteers" who can reach out to people on behalf of the Red Cross, and spread information across their own personal networks.

"Our volunteers in non-affected areas can be very active now," Pipkin said. "People a couple states away can offer emotional support, write back to someone who is home alone, let them know they're not alone and somebody is there for them, in addition to donating."

Robert Ottenhoff, president and CEO of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, said that since Hurricane Katrina, social media has gotten better at alerting more people how to prepare for a storm of Sandy's magnitude.

"The communities in affected areas of Sandy were pre-positioned," said Ottenhoff. "States were all pretty well organized and declared disaster areas quickly, sometimes days before the worst of it. Social media played a big role in that."

All the major relief organizations are mobilized, in the immediate aftermath, to provide assistance, Ottenhoff said -- from Feeding America, which had prepared to distribute food, water and supplies to people in Sandy-affected areas, to The Humane Society, which had mobilized its own animal rescue efforts in advance of the storm. Ottenhoff said he learned from Katrina the importance of keeping philanthropic operations on the ground, even after the initial rush of media coverage.

"After the TV cameras are gone, people tend to move on and don't really think about it," Ottenthoff said. "What we're trying to do is organize private philanthropy, foundations, corporations, and focus their attention on recovery and rebuilding."

Robert Wolfe, co-founder of the crowd-funding social platform, Crowdrise, said social media can be a double-edged sword in disasters. On one hand, he said, the best way to raise money for a cause is to hear from friends or from people you follow and respect, since a personal note has so much more impact than some organization blanketing people with blind requests.

"But I think the potential risk is that, while its great at building awareness, some concern is that on Twitter success is a re-Tweet instead of taking real action," Wolfe said. "Something we all need to guard against is making sure it doesn't stop real action."

Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist who has donated much of his time to philanthropy via his own Craig Connects network, already announced that he would match the first $25,000 of donations to hurricane relief efforts submitted via his Crowdrise page. He said he hopes other people in the tech realm will follow suit.

"It's important for anyone with resources to help out now," Newmark said. "That applies to big philanthropy players. I'd like to see more from my peers in the technology world, to get out the word better."

Newmark said that doing something like this is "the least a guy sitting behind a desk could do."

Others are thinking far (very far) outside the box. As Hannah Sassaman wrote on a Change.org petition page Monday night, she was watching HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" during the storm and got to thinking.

"Thousands of families and workers in Atlantic City have wrecked businesses, closed schools, delayed jobs, and destroyed beaches to look forward to tonight," Sassaman wrote. "HBO can use its powerful media platform to raise money and support local, state, and federal relief efforts."

As of 5 p.m. on Tuesday, 60 people had signed Sassaman's pledge.

For more ways you can help, in person or through donations, on a local or state level, read our Liveblog below. The Center for Disaster Philanthropy has set up a fund for Hurricane Sandy relief efforts, and The American Red Cross said blood donations are extremely helpful right now.

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