By Greg Toppo
As the East Coast recovers from Superstorm Sandy, a simple Facebook page created by a New Jersey urban planner is pushing the boundaries of the popular social networking site, becoming a news source, bulletin board and, on occasion, an actual lifesaver.
Called a "bottom-up, two-way news outlet" by its creator, Justin Auciello, Jersey Shore Hurricane News has more than 185,000 "likes" or Facebook followers, most of them having arrived since Sandy made landfall Oct. 29.
"It's not just some robotic news organization that churns out stuff," Auciello said. "I interact with the people, and I make them feel like they are part of the story, because they are the story. It's them."
Auciello, 32, left his South Seaside Park, N.J., bungalow the day before Sandy made landfall and hasn't been back since. He has overseen the page from his parents' South Brunswick, N.J., home, about 50 miles northwest of the thin barrier island, which suffered some of the most severe damage of any area in the storm.
Though he left, two friends, Tim Husar and Jan Humphreys, stayed behind and soon began sending him photos and videos of storm-damaged Seaside Park. They were among the first to shoot post-Sandy footage of Casino Pier, the massive structure that partially collapsed, dumping amusement park rides into the ocean. Soon the page, which began as a photo and video gallery, became a rallying point for evacuees, who saw the images and asked the duo to check on relatives.
The critical mass of followers also meant that state officials took the page seriously, monitoring it during and after the storm and helping Auciello confirm tips or knock down rumors. After the extent of the shore's damage became clear, rescuers even relied on user postings to help figure who was stranded.
"We did monitor the page for people that needed rescue, and we did act on postings that we found," said Mary Goepfert, spokeswoman for the state Office of Emergency Management.
She admitted that Auciello's little page has "a wide reach" and "a passionate following," but she discouraged users from relying on Facebook as an alternative to 911.
Auciello said that during the worst of the storm, the page served as a sort of to-do list for rescue crews. "911 was so overloaded that help was not immediate," he said. Users posted their addresses and medical needs and help eventually came.
Two weeks later, Auciello admits that monitoring the page full-time has been exhausting. "I need a break," he said last week. He's still trying to get back into his house. He may not be able to move back in for six to eight months.