Getting information out to victims and their families during a disaster is a major issue for any relief organization. So while the Central United States recovers from a spate of storms that has ravaged towns with tornadoes and flooding, the American Red Cross is relying on a number of web 2.0 technologies to spread information to the press and people affected by the severe weather. The online newsroom that the organization has set up relies on a number of web 2.0 widgets.

The newsroom site runs off of Wordpress, and it's being used to push out press releases, media, and information about shelters. The Red Cross is using Utterz to post audio reports from the field, Flickr for photos and YouTube for videos, as well as a Slide-powered slideshow widget that allows anyone to upload photos of disaster areas. The site also features a Google Maps mashup that depicts the surprisingly large number of relief operations currently being run by the American Red Cross (hint: click the "view larger map" link, because viewing the informative popups inside the widget on site is next to impossible).

That the Red Cross is using social media sharing sites like Utterz, Flickr, and YouTube (they even have a Twitter account) is not surprising. We reported in April on a study that appeared in New Scientist magazine that found that social media sites, blogs, and instant messaging services are better at connecting people and providing warnings during emergencies than traditional sources of such information.

During last fall's California wildfires, for example, the best source of breaking information was a combination of Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, blogs, and other tools of citizen journalists. As the fires continued to rage out of control, media poured into CNN's i-Report section, which collects user submitted news photos and videos, and the value of citizen journalism became so apparent that the company eventually spun i-Report off as a standalone web site.

"The real contribution of citizen journalists in a story like this, where whole areas of land are closed off and the fields of greatest danger keep shifting, is in having more eyes on the ground," Thomas Hollihan, a professor of media at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California, told the Baltimore Sun. "Citizen journalists are swapping information back and forth - reporting where the flames are now headed or showing images on their cell phones of the fire. And with so much happening so quickly, that kind of information can be really powerful - if it is accurate."

Last spring, when tragedy struck Virginia Tech University, the "I'm ok at VT" group on Facebook famously connected students with families and friends. Hundreds of other support groups, blogs, and web site sprung up on social networking sites and around the web as a way to connect students and help them through troubling times. The Red Cross operates a similar site for connecting disaster survivors with friends and family.

From disaster relief and other non-governmental organizations to citizen journalists and the mainstream media, web 2.0 and mobile technology is being used to connect, inform, and mobilize people during disasters.