Tom Hazelwood uses social networking to convey his observations from the field.
By Susan Kim*
July 3, 2012— When Tom Hazelwood first heard the news that a severe earthquake struck Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, he anxiously awaited information on his UMCOR colleagues, Rev. Dr. Sam Dixon, Rev. Clinton Rabb, and Rev. Jim Gulley, who were all meeting in Haiti that same day.
Back in the US, Hazelwood found himself turning to Facebook and text messaging, hoping for news that his friends were unharmed.
“I was also being contacted by a large number of people desperate for information,” said Hazelwood, UMCOR’s assistant general secretary for US Disaster Response.
When he heard some initial good news, he posted a Facebook status update on Jan. 15: “After 55 hours, it was reported that Sam, Clint, and Jim have been rescued. Praise God from whom all blessings flow!”
But the report Hazelwood had received was wrong. At the time, none of the men had been rescued. Hours later, Hazelwood found out Dixon had perished in the rubble. Rabb was rescued but later died at a Florida hospital. Gulley survived and still serves as a consultant for UMCOR.
Looking back, Hazelwood, even as he still grieves the loss of his friends, acknowledges how easy it is to post what’s in your heart instead of waiting for confirmation.
The viral intensity with which social networking messages spread can sometimes be the bane of disaster responders. When requests go out on Facebook for material goods such as clothing and bottled water, disaster-struck towns often find themselves inundated with too many donations.
But for all its pitfalls, social networking is also a valuable tool for expressing emotional support, said Doreen Gosmire, associate director of Communications for the Dakotas Annual Conference.
In June 2011, when more than 12,000 people were evacuated from Minot, ND, because of imminent flooding, the conference posted a message of support from Bishop Deborah Lieder Kiesey on YouTube, then linked it through Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail blasts.
The bishop’s message was distributed within 24 hours of the evacuation, Gosmire pointed out. “There’s no way, given our geographical area, that we could have gotten her there in person. Nor would you want to go into an evacuation area and get in the way. YouTube allowed us to convey a message of comfort to the people.”
Hazelwood is also known for relaying a sense of awareness, comfort, and his signature humor from the field. Over the past year, he has added “tweeting”—brief messages sent on the social networking site Twitter—to his repertoire of social-networking tools.
“After the [March 2012] tornadoes in Kentucky and Indiana, I was tweeting and simultaneously posting to Facebook. I was very careful that what I wrote was accurate. I got appreciative comments from across the country,” he said.
There is a huge difference between using Facebook to try to get news from a disaster taking place overseas, and using Facebook to post real-time observations from a US disaster site, Hazelwood pointed out.
As he travels to disasters, Hazelwood believes that Facebook status updates and tweeting help put a human perspective on disaster response.
“It gives us a glimpse of the real emotion of the event—and that’s exactly what the public wants,” he said. “They don’t want the dry, stiff public announcement. That’s why, when I’m in the field, I try to convey my observations and my feelings. And they’re always grounded in fact.”
UMCOR connects disaster survivors with helping hands and giving hearts. Please contribute to US Disaster Response, UMCOR Advance #901670.
* Susan Kim is a journalist and a regular contributor to umcor.org.