How The Nashville Flood Demonstrated Online Video’s Power and Importance

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Sometimes events occur that force a writer like me to suddenly get personal.  It’s like a blog version of the sitcom staple, the “very special episode.”  For me, that event is the Nashville flood.  If you haven’t heard about it, Nashville is largely under water today.

It’s been unfortunately overshadowed in the national media by the oil in the gulf and the attempted terror attack in Times Square.  That’s understandable—those stories are hugely important.  But it’s maddening to see so much suffering and destruction here and have that story largely ignored by the rest of the world.

Here’s an example of the kind of devastation I’m talking about:

Nashville is my home, and has been for more than a decade.  But even people in their 90’s who have lived here all their lives have never seen anything like this.  The Army Corps of Engineers has called it a “once in a thousand years” flood.  Think about that.

Despite being two blocks from a lake, my home was not flooded.  I feel a mix of relief, gratitude, and something that can only be compared to guilt.  But the damage is so widespread, that nearly everyone’s having trouble getting where they need to go.  Interstates are shut down, tens of thousands were without power—one of the two water treatment plants is underwater and not functioning.  Things are pretty bad.

Television news reporters scrambled to find places to stand on dry land to film the flood.  Power outages forced some field reports to be filed by cell phone video camera.  And many citizens had lost their cable or electricity and were unable to follow the TV coverage anyway.

But there was still a way for people to share and receive information about the storm.  Several ways, actually.  No single event in my experience has served as a better demonstration of the power of social media and emerging technology.  In the age of portable HD video cameras, smart phones, WiFi, and mobile apps… it was actually quite easy to get updates, photos, and videos from the front lines of the storm.

I had multiple Twitter search pages open (I never did lose my high-speed Internet service, though many did), each with various search terms and hash-tags related to the flood (“#OtherSituation2010” seems to be the favorite—referencing the awful winter-2009 storm in Nashville that used “#TheSituation”—though there’s also “#Splashville” and “#NashvilleFlood”).  And people were Tweeting photos, videos, and stories of the damage and the rescues.  Many people were Tweeting out requests for assistance or asking who and how they could help.  I also had my Facebook app open on my phone, getting updates from friends and coworkers.

The flooding made it so difficult to get around the greater Nashville area that the TV crews were quite limited in what they were able to show.  Online video became the best way to stay on top of the latest developments, as hundreds filmed flood waters and destruction in their immediate area and uploaded for all to see.

It feels strange to use the word in the context of this massive tragedy, but this thing was truly viral… a viral beast.  This is the first live, local “newsworthy” event in my experience where TV coverage was actually a far inferior method of getting a big-picture view of the scope of things.  Even with power out across the city, the mobile web is now so commonplace that the viral spread of information wasn’t the least bit impeded.

And that’s not even mentioning the immediacy of online video and Twitter.  They now make TV news crews seem every bit as “late to the party” as TV news crews made newspapers appear when they came on the scene.  By the time the reporter on television says, “We have breaking news… the Metro Center area is being evacuated,” I’ve already seen video of the evacuation and retweeted it myself.  Before the news anchor shows footage of the prison inmates helping to sandbag the lone remaining water treatment plant, I’ve already seen video and photos of the event that have been uploaded to Twitter by individuals on the scene.

I know everyone uses different definitions of the word “viral,” but to me it’s always served to describe any piece of content that rapidly gets popular because of individuals sharing it with others.  And here, in the midst of this tragedy, was the perfect example of a very naturally occurring viral spread.  Using email, text message, blogs, online video, Twitter, Facebook, and more… citizen journalists scooped the heck out of the professional journalists at every step along the way—they still are today.

I hope I’m not coming off too casual by talking about this disaster in “viral” terms.  A lot of people have died (18 so far statewide) with the toll expected to rise over the coming days as the waters recede) and there are tens of thousands who have lost their homes, many of whom had no flood insurance.  This is a massive tragedy that will take months—and billions of dollars—to recover from.

And yet somehow, for me, it served as an official changing of the guard on how I consume news.  After all, I had electricity and cable service the entire time… but I didn’t have the television on.  I had my laptop open.  I had my Droid Incredible out.  Not because it was a novelty or a gimmick, but because it was truly the fastest way to get the widest cross-section of news and updates available.

Online video isn’t just for entertainment anymore.

Online video helped people know which roads were closed and which areas were flooding.  Online video helped loved ones learn their parents or children were safe.  And moving forward… online video will help spread the news of what’s gone on here and help raise much needed donations.  Perhaps videos like this one:

If you’re moved in the least to do something to help, please consider making a donation at either the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee (partnered with the Mayor’s office) or the Nashville Red Cross.  Every little bit helps… and we’re going to need a lot.


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