After a massive tornado roared through Joplin, Mo., Sunday night, much of the city was left isolated without electricity, telephone service, or Internet connections. Survivors have found it difficult to communicate with loved ones, while frantic relatives trying to call family members in Joplin can’t get through.

So the city’s newspaper – the Joplin Globe – established a Facebook page to link tornado survivors with their family members and friends. The page encouraged Joplin residents to post a note if they made it through the tornado safely, and it allowed other people to post inquiries about friends and family members they haven’t been able to contact.

Within hours of the devastating storm -- which killed more than 116 people and injured more than a thousand -- at least four similar Facebook pages sprang up. A pair of pages created by concerned volunteers each attracted more than 3,000 “likes,” while the Globe’s page recorded more than 5,000. And all of the pages conveyed survivors and loved ones’ desperation.

On the Globe’s page, a 15-year-old girl asked for help finding her missing mother. Another poster hoped to hear from her Aunt Bertha. A Joplin resident who picked up several children in a destroyed neighborhood listed their names in hopes their parents would call.

Meanwhile, a Facebook page called “Joplin Tornado Citizen Checks” included pleas from an East Joplin resident looking for her grandpa “who drank coffee every morning at McDonald’s at 28th & Main.”

A man carries a young girl who was rescued after being trapped with her mother in their home after a tornado hit Joplin, Mo. on Sunday evening, May 22, 2011. The tornado tore a path a mile wide and four miles long destroying homes and businesses. (Mike Gullett/AP)

And on a page titled “Joplin people accounted for after the storm,” a Springfield, Missouri resident posted a photo of an 18-year-old friend. “This is Will Norton,” she wrote. “He has been missing for over 12 hours and his family is looking for him. He was last in Joplin on the way home from his high school graduation.”

“It’s heart-wrenching,” said Scott Meeker, the Globe’s enterprise editor who administers the newspaper’s Facebook page. “It’s a lot of individual stories, and a lot of them are not going to end happily.”
But amid the desperation and ominous missing person reports, there have been some happy endings.

“Adrienne Baker and children are safe,” read a post on one of the Facebook sites Monday morning. That ended a night of anxiety for Baker’s friend Shannon McDermott, who lives in nearby Granby, Missouri and had been unable to reach Baker for more than 12 hours after the tornado.

“We were very relieved,” McDermott told me in a phone interview. “We had sent numerous texts to her trying to locate her.”

Families inundate social media sites

It’s becoming common for so-called “family reunification” pages to appear on Facebook after natural disasters and other deadly events. After the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, a student created a Facebook group called “I’m ok at VT.” More recently, such groups sprouted following last month’s Alabama tornadoes and the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Meeker, the Joplin Globe editor, said the newspaper decided to start its tornado survivor page Sunday night after staffers noticed people were beginning to post missing persons reports on the Globe’s main Facebook site.

“It just took off almost immediately,” Meeker said. “We were getting inundated with families requesting information or trying to get out information for their loved ones.”

As the Globe was setting up its reunification page, 24-year-old Rachelle Mathis had the idea to do the same thing. The Colorado Springs, Col. college student, who grew up in Missouri, established the “Joplin Tornado Citizen Checks” page late Sunday night and was attracting as many as 50 posts per hour by Monday afternoon.

“I kind of expected it to be more of my family and friends, and maybe their families and friends,” Mathis said.  “But I posted on my page, and I assume that my friends and family in that area reposted.”

Mathis said in a phone interview that she was astounded to see the page attract more than 60 “likes” within the first few minutes after she created it. It now has more than 3,600.

A drive toward coordination

Both Meeker and Mathis describe their Facebook pages as a public service for the people of Joplin. But while the sites have facilitated some happy reunions – and provided a compelling personal narrative of the disaster – some emergency management experts warn that the hastily created sites can also foster confusion, especially when so many spring up around the same disaster.

“It’s not well coordinated,” said Jeannette Sutton, a sociologist who studies social media in disasters. “These kinds of sites are usually created by really well-intentioned people, but the people who are looking for someone have to search through a lot of different places to find information.”

“Ideally these things would all come together through a single point of coordination,” Sutton said in a phone interview.

The American Red Cross urges survivors and people searching for missing persons to use the Red Cross’ own website, which includes a permanent, searchable registry of disaster survivors called “Safe and Well.” The organization activates the database when crises strike anywhere in the nation.

Red Cross officials said the Safe and Well registry holds several advantages over ad hoc Facebook pages. It’s easier to search, it includes the names of people staying at shelters who may not have Internet access, and it better protects survivors’ privacy because it requires searchers to know the address or phone number of whomever they’re looking for.

“We’ve been doing this kind of reunification work for a hundred years,” said Red Cross family reunification manager Katherine Galifianakis. “It was one of the original missions of the Red Cross.”

Galifianakis said the Red Cross is working with Google to incorporate Safe and Well with Google Person Finder, a powerful Web application that’s been used to locate survivors of the Japanese earthquake and the 2010 quake in Haiti.

The alliance of two well-known organizations – Google and the Red Cross – may eventually raise the stature of Safe and Well and minimize the need for media organizations or individuals to create reunification pages for each disaster.

Several of the Joplin pages began linking to the Red Cross website Monday, as helpful participants advised users to cast a wide net in their efforts to find loved ones.

The Globe’s Meeker said the newspaper respects that the Red Cross “is the expert” in family reunification, but he’s also happy about what the Globe -- with its news staff of about 15 people – has accomplished through its storm-related social media efforts.

Meeker said he personally helped connect a family to a relative who’s hospitalized in Tulsa, while the Globe’s Facebook page helped reunite a Vermont woman with her best friend, an Oklahoma woman with her aunt, and an elderly Joplin resident with her sister.

“I’ve been the admin on our Facebook page for a little over a year,” Meeker said.  “It didn’t really hit me until now the power that social media can have in times of crisis.”

Previously: Joplin Globe reporter on covering tornado aftermath: ‘I have an awful job to do’