Emergency response in the WhatsApp era

World Bank
Feb 11, 2016 · 3 min read
Cyclone Hudhud. © NASA Earth Observatory

On Oct. 12, 2014, Cyclone Hudhud, a category 4 cyclone with wind speeds exceeding 220 km/hour bore down on to the city of Vishakhapatnam in the state of Andhra Pradesh on the eastern coast of India. The city, with a population of over 1.8 million people and neighboring districts suffered massive devastation. The World Bank’s South Asia Disaster Risk Management team jointly undertook a post-disaster damage and needs assessment with a team from the Asian Development Bank and with the government of Andhra Pradesh with the support of Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery.

During field visits, the assessment team interacted extensively with the community and local government officials. The one story that seemed to resonate consistently was the efficiency in clearing roads blocked by fallen trees and debris to make sure connectivity was restored at the earliest. Following any major disaster, such as cyclone Hudhud, restoring connectivity is among the most challenging and critical activities. Restoring connectivity allows for more efficient flow of much-needed emergency relief, medical supplies and helps foster early recovery. We decided to dig deeper to find out what had been done differently here.

© V. Ramachandra

One evening, while returning from a field visit to Srikakulam district, we posed this question to V. Ramachandra, Superintendent Engineer of Public Works Department (PWD), what had been done differently.

Ramachandra’s face lit up and he pulled out his smart phone. He showed us a “closed group” that the PWD engineers had created on WhatsApp. For the first three days after cyclone Hudhud, there was no electricity and no mobile connectivity. As the connections were restored, the PWD closed group became functional and that acted as the main tool of communication for information sharing.

For any breach of road, the engineers shared information through the WhatsApp group with a clear location and a short explanation of the problem. The person responsible for the area responded with a message stating how long it would take to clear the block. Even requests for tools and JCBs were made on the group. This helped identify and access required resources. The action taken was narrated on the group discussion page once the problem was solved. An updated photo showing restored road connectivity was uploaded to the group.

No meetings and no discussions at the district headquarter level had to be organized. The district magistrate joined the group and gave instruction to the department through the closed WhatsApp group. Most roads were functional within three to four days. The whole department worked to provide its services through a messaging system, without any meetings and formal orders.

Social media has become a part of our daily lives and is a very powerful tool for emergency management if used properly. Social media and pre-designed apps are effective when written reports and formal meetings are not required.

During our current road to resilience mission we learned about the use of social media during the Chennai flooding last year. The disaster management department still uses it for information sharing. It is important to learn from such experiences and institutionalize them for effective and efficient use during periods of early recovery and emergency response.

Read more World Bank blogs.

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