Social media stepped in when power went out

BY PRU SOWERS

KONK LIFE STAFF WRITER

With all the complaints about social media these days, it ended up being one of the only ways for people to get any information about the impact of Hurricane Irma in Key West.

Cell phones in the city went down just after 11 am Sunday, about three hours after Irma first hit Key West. Up until then, those who chose to remain in the city to ride out the storm had been texting photos and videos of the first impact of the winds. But suddenly, everything went eerily silent.

That’s when Facebook really lit up. First, people posted information that they couldn’t reach their families and friends in Key West, so everyone knew cell service had gone out. Worrisome, but at least they knew it wasn’t only their family that had suddenly gone silent. A few posts revealed that while Key West Police and Fire Department staff had been offered the chance to evacuate, none of them did, including dispatchers.

Then, hours later, the first reports from satellite telephones and, believe it or not, still-working landlines in the Keys were shared on Facebook. Monroe County Commissioner Heather Carruthers, who was sheltering with her family in Orlando, began sharing posts about her telephone conversations with county emergency officials.

“Just got off an emergency management call and would like to share the following,” Carruthers wrote. “The surge should start receding shortly. Snake Creek Bridge is NOT OUT. Not sure if the video circulating is an optical illusion or doctored but we have actually had people on the bridge since the storm.”

Three Facebook pages stood out, “Key West Hurricane Irma,” “Key West Watch Media” and one titled simply “Hurricane Irma” kept the local information flowing. On “Key West Watch Media,” former editor Linda Grist Cunningham posted regularly throughout the day Sunday.

“Struck about 8:30 am at Cat 4. Made landfall in Cudjoe Key at 9:14 am. Storm surge was about 2.5 feet, a foot lower than Wilma and well below the predicted surge of 5-10 feet,” she wrote.

On the Key West Hurricane Irma page, it was clear readers were grateful for the information that page kept churning out.

“Thanks to this page, I was able to learn that the Key West High School shelter made it through. My brother Paul chose to hunker down there,” wrote Raymond Mills.

“Your information is greatly appreciated from those of us who have a home and friends in Key West and are unable to hear from them,” said Lisa Pemberton.

Nadene Grossman Orr, who lives in Key West but sheltered outside the city, was also faithfully posting on Facebook. Her Facebook friends began sharing her posts to others desperate for information.

“Just got off the phone with Chuck Butler and Sue Turner [who] are doing well as are the kitties,” Grossman wrote. “They have ventured out as far as Smathers Beach… it’s covered with seaweed and fallen trees, folks are driving cars over it all so others are venturing out now. It will take some time to clean up. They don’t think storm surge was much more than 2-3 feet anyplace in Key West.”

Military and Monroe County officials also used Facebook to communicate. US Coast Guard Sector Key West posted they had received word from a “Captain Janszen who stayed behind in Key West,” that military personnel in Key West were “all ok” and that Naval Air Station at Boca Chica and the airfield only sustained minor damage.

“Good news for getting people and supplies to Key West,” the post read.

From Wendy Wilson on Facebook: “Hubby stayed at his office, Suburban Propane on Catherine [Street]. They didn’t seem to have any flooding either. But lots of trees down.”

And from Mary Beth Corker in Altamonte Springs, FL: “I just spoke Barry O’ Gaora (owner of Shanna Key) in Key West. He said he was fine along with everyone he knew that stayed. NO CELL PHONES WORK!!

Landlines are working.”

And so was social media.