Woman on cellphone

In times of crisis, neighbors often come together. Working alongside each other, they rebuild after storms, take in those who have lost their homes, raise money, and gather supplies.

But that changes when a disease is keeping neighbors apart. With the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the world, physical communities must support each other from a distance. For many, the solution has been to get online.

One place where that’s happening is Cross Plains, Wisconsin, a village of fewer than 4,000 people near Madison. There, an online community that formed in the wake of a flooding disaster a year and a half ago has been repurposed to lend support to community members in a time of COVID-19.

It’s a strategy that can get help to people quickly, said Cross Plains resident Melissa Murphy, who formed a Facebook group to share information and resources after the August 2018 flood.

“It takes time to organize big amounts of help,” Murphy said in a recent phone interview. “So the question becomes, What can we do now? What can we get started now? How can we help now, until there’s more readily available help the government is offering us?”

Experts say that organizing groups online may help communities learn to work with each other more effectively, leaving them more prepared to face future disasters. That will be a critical need as climate change is expected to bring more extreme weather in coming decades.

“The more collective the community is in terms of its actions and engaging as many people as possible and moving in a similar direction, the more resilient that community is going to be because it’s not fractured,” said Susan Cutter, director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina. “That sort of fracturing is where you get less resilient communities where nobody can agree on anything, sort of like Congress.”

An emotionally draining flood

Murphy never planned on becoming a source of critical information for her community. She describes herself as an introvert who previously didn’t engage in many village events. She still feels surprised when people greet her in the grocery store.

That began changing on August 20, 2018, when an intense rainstorm parked itself over Madison, Wisconsin, and smaller communities to the city’s west for upwards of 20 hours. Cross Plains was one of the worst-hit communities – it received over 14 inches of rain. The nearby Black Earth creek filled well past its banks and flash flooding spread through the town.

On the night of the flood, Murphy was driving home from work when a friend, who wasn’t able to get home because of impassable roads, called asking if Murphy could let out her dogs.

“I get there and everything is just flooded, almost up to her front door,” she recalled. “You can’t even see the steps anymore, it’s all under water. It was waist deep and there was flooding in her back that went right up to the porch as well. So, I call her and I’m like, ‘Honey, I can’t let your dogs out. There’s not a place to let them out.'”

Murphy managed to scramble along the side of the house, get the dogs out of the back door and into her car, and head up to higher ground.

“I would laugh now, but I was just emotionally drained,” Murphy said. “Seeing what happened to my friend’s house, seeing what was happening to everyone, it was definitely a big trigger.”

What Murphy wanted in the aftermath of the flood was an organized place to find information and resources and a way to help those who’d lost homes and belongings. So she created a Facebook group and began posting resources for essentials like insurance claims and financial relief. Group members shared strategies for cleaning out flooded basements and the names of contractors they’d found helpful. Murphy also organized a space for donations at a local business so people who had lost household items in the flood could take what they needed.

“I just like all that information and I hate seeing people be confused,” she said. “So if I’m going to compile things for myself, why not do it for everybody?”

When the community fell back into a normal rhythm in the months after the flood, the Facebook group quieted down. Murphy wasn’t anticipating another disaster, but she didn’t see any harm in leaving the group around.

“I should have knocked on wood,” she said.

By mid-March 2020, the World Health Organization had declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Murphy got back online, creating and sharing a spreadsheet that includes official updates, homeschooling resources, local business statuses, job posts, financial aid options, and volunteer opportunities related to the spread of the new coronavirus.

She also posts daily updates on the group page that summarize what state and federal leaders are saying. Other participants post offers of aid, such as an old laptop for a student who needs it for online learning.

Strong communities handle disaster better

Research suggests that tight-knit communities fare better in preparing for and recovering from disasters. Experts say that “community cohesion,” or how effectively a community works together toward a common goal, helps explain how well communities handle emergencies.

Cutter, of the University of South Carolina, said that resilient communities do experience disagreements. But she said community members share a common vision about what they want their community to achieve. Having those goals stated clearly, transparently, and regularly can make communities more cohesive.

She added that leaders can guide individuals toward those goals, helping create communities that are better able to withstand disasters.

But strong local communities aren’t a complete substitute for federal or state aid.

In research conducted in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Purdue University civil engineering professor Satish Ukkusuri found that in addition to strong support networks between community members, access to money and government leadership helped communities recover more quickly. Ukkusuri said that recovery after Sandy was impeded in some communities by a slow response from FEMA.

Creating strong online communities

Although online spaces have a reputation for enabling harassment and spreading misinformation, Murphy’s group has managed to avoid that kind of behavior. Daniel Ehrenfeld is an assistant professor at Stockton University who studies digital rhetoric and online public spheres. He said that it is important for online groups to develop and clearly state norms. Then, moderators must act quickly to block offending members.

“Moderating a community is an enormous amount of work,” he said.

Murphy knows that firsthand. She said that she recommends that anyone who is trying to create a similar space finds one other trusted person to help run the group.

Sydette Harry, a research fellow at the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California, is an expert in positive online communities. “Pro-social behavior, especially in crisis, is actually much more common than anti-social, in most circumstances, but moderating is about providing those circumstances,” she wrote in an email. “If it is working well without abuse, especially in times of trauma, a lot of work is being done, by the mod and the community. It’s beautiful to see.”

Ehrenfeld said that there are benefits and costs to organizing online versus in person. Online communities can generally be built more quickly and cheaply, and communication is easier and more accessible. In the midst of COVID-19, it’s safer.

Both Cutter and Ukkusuri noted that demographic groups use online social networks differently and have different primary information sources. Additionally, people’s ability to access the internet is not equal, particularly in the aftermath of a disaster. As a result, online versions of physical communities may miss reaching some members. At the same time, Ukkusuri said, online networks tend to be larger and share more diverse information, though he hasn’t seen conclusive evidence of whether that leads people to make better decisions.

Online communities, Ehrenfeld said, tend to be classified as weak-tie networks. Strong-tie networks are based on friendship and feeling mutually responsible for other people, whereas weak-tie networks are composed of more brief, less personal interactions. As Murphy’s group members use what they built during the flood to grapple with a second disaster, he wonders if the group might have established something more than a weak-tie network.

Harry agrees. “That this group is reanimated means it has laid a framework,” she wrote. “A lot of the preliminary groundwork and community-building has been done. And especially with communities, the intro, the entrance, is the most important part.”

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Murphy said she will continue to do anything that she can do to help her community endure and recover from disaster. “At the end of the day if I helped one person, then it’s just kind of worth it,” she said.

And the community she has created may soon find a new purpose. NOAA forecasters recently predicted that the Midwest could see widespread flooding this spring.

Reported in partnership with tone madison, a music and culture news site based in Madison, Wisconsin. 

Topics: Communicating Climate, Weather Extremes