Facebook’s flood fighters

The coming flood in the Fargo-Moorhead area has already been a test of social networking sites in an emergency. So far, the sites have passed with flying colors.

Photographer Kevin Tobosa, who lives in South Fargo, has helped organize volunteers to fill and move sandbags, and hit paydirt with Facebook, organizing the Fargo-Moorhead Flood Volunteer Network.

“I got an e-mail last Thursday with a call for volunteers. It just kind of hit me that we can really get the word out quickly… to a lot of people in real time using a social network like Facebook. We also have a Twitter account set up. People have this up and running at work, at home, going to their cellphones. E-mail seemed a lot slower, which is funny since it’s always been known as a fast method to communicate,” he told me today.

Tobosa says when he told Fargo’s volunteer coordinator about his idea, “she thought maybe we could get about 50 volunteers and they’d mostly be young people.” Tobosa set up the Facebook group on Thursday, sending out 100 “invites” to his network (he runs his photography business via Facebook.)

“Within 24 hours, we’d broken 1,000 (group members), within 48 hours we’d broken 2,000 and today we’re at 3,000 people who are receiving our updates as they need volunteers,” he said. “When we do put out a call for volunteers, we get that push, and now they’re using that as their primary push and the press releases follow shortly thereafter. Just from the messages we’ve received via Facebook, people are thanking us for organizing it. A lot of people are out on spring break and hadn’t realized how serious it is. People don’t read the news when they’re on vacation, but they are checking their Facebook and Twitter accounts, so that was a significant communication breakthrough.”

Over the next week, Tobosa does not intend to change the purpose of his Facebook/Twitter efforts to a full-blown news-reporting effort. “The intent of this was never as a news outlet; there are a lot of news organizations that are already covering that. They have blogs on their sites. It was simply to be a voice for first-link volunteer coordination, to tell people where they were needed and what their urgencies are.”

Tobosa has spent lots of time at “Sandbag University, in Moorhead and Fargo, locations where volunteers are filling and moving sandbags. “It’s hard work. It’s certainly back-breaking work, but there are a lot of people doing it,” he said.

After our interview, he headed out to a dike being built a block from his house, which survived the ’97 flood, but is on “the bubble” for the flood which is expected to crest Thursday or Friday.

Listen to the entire interview with Kevin Tobasa.

(I’m heading to West Central Minnesota today. If you’re in the area, please let me know.)