Over the last week, the city of Boulder and many of the surrounding communities have been in the midst of what many are calling a thousand-year flood. Because the rains and flash flooding came on so quickly and with such great force, Colorado authorities and emergency crews had to act fast to disseminate critical and potentially lifesaving information about evacuations, road closures and other dangers to residents. As we saw with Hurricane Sandy almost a year ago, social media and other crowd-sourced Internet news outlets have become a surprisingly reliable source of time-sensitive information during a crisis (though users must also use their discretion with sources). These online channels provide minute-by-minute updates about disaster situations in short, shareable snippets that encourage users to spread the word and stay informed.
Over the course of the flooding in the Colorado Front Range over the last week, monitoring the Instagram and Twitter feeds with the hashtag #boulderflood has been nothing short of fascinating. With contributions from the likes of students, residents and media sources, the #boulderflood feed allowed users to keep their finger on the pulse of the flood situation.
With servers under great stress from both the environmental pressures as well as high traffic from concerned citizens frantically browsing the web, several Boulder-area businesses and nonprofits took it upon themselves to optimize the feedback loop. Due to enormous strain on their servers from unusually high traffic, the City of Longmont built a quick WordPress site as a temporary fix to divert some visitor traffic and prevent their site from crashing.
A local Colorado non-profit, VisionLink, created a Boulder Flood overview site with links and information about road closures, open shelters, significant events and recommended actions for those in affected areas. The site also includes an interactive map of Boulder County that aggregates updates from Twitter and Instagram with the hashtag #boulderflood by GPS location. Though some of the tweets and Instagrams were of college kids in bikinis and rain boots, others included timely photos of flood conditions at high-traffic hot spots and cross streets in Boulder.
Another online source of flood information came from the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS), a non-profit, community-based network of volunteers who work to measure and map precipitation, including rain, hail and snow. The group released a map for the duration of the flood that plotted precipitation totals by severity throughout the Boulder area. This tool proved extremely helpful for many Boulder area residents as a reference for which areas to avoid and where to take refuge if needed.
While the city and surrounding areas start the massive cleanup and restoration efforts around the city now that the bluebird skies have returned, the community is coming together in many ways. There are volunteers in orange vests and hard hats shoveling roadways, friends and family gutting ravaged homes, shelter workers serving food and supplies, and techies building information and emergency tools behind the scenes.