Three big ideas on helping readers during a disaster

The Case:

On December 26, the Sierra Nevada region of California was hit by a massive snowstorm. The storm toppled thousands of trees, and left tens of thousands of residents without electricity, heat or running water for several days. Through it all, the two-person team behind YubaNet published around-the-clock updates, collected and disseminated information from people seeking help, and offered safety tips and other crucial information for residents.

The Stats: 

Days YubaNet operated on generator power: 10

Number of readers who filled out the site’s storm cleanup progress form: 4,490

Number of employees: 2

The Backstory: 

On October 16, 1999, went live. The local website, named after Nevada County’s South Yuba River, included free classified ads, a post-it-yourself community calendar, reports on weather and road conditions, and a message board. On that first day, 17 people visited the site.

Later that day, founders Susan Levitz and Pascale Fusshoeller sat outside, raising a glass to their new venture. That’s when they spotted a plume of smoke in the distance — a sight that would forever change YubaNet’s trajectory.

Fusshoeller and Levitz made a few calls and learned about the Pendola Fire from Tahoe National Forest’s public affairs officer. Quickly, they decided to post real-time information about the fire on YubaNet — an innovative decision at the time. As word about YubaNet’s fire updates began to spread, more people visited the site. And before long, the YubaNet team caught the attention of local radio stations interested in collaborating with them.

More than 22 years and countless wildfires later, Fusshoeller and Levitz are experts at providing real-time updates and crucial information to Nevada County residents during natural disasters. Those skills were especially put to the test in late December 2021, when a snowstorm left tens of thousands of residents without electricity, heat, or running water for days. Throughout the disaster, the YubaNet team provided crucial information to readers, including collecting information from people looking for help and connecting them with people offering assistance.

In the 36 hours following the storm, YubaNet received 2.7 million page views. That’s a far cry from their initial audience of 17.

The Takeaways: 

How does the duo behind YubaNet do it? I spoke to Fusshoeller, founder and editor of YubaNet, who offered three tips that have contributed to their success.

1. Listen to the community

Fusshoeller has decades of experience reporting on local disasters and, during that time, she’s noticed how much of mainstream disaster coverage is “for people on the outside.” News outlets often share photos of destruction, aerial videos of the affected region, and interviews with distraught residents.

But for people who are without power and still have a way to access information online, their needs are more immediate, Fusshoeller said. “They ask questions like: Where can I get water? Where can I recharge my devices? Is there any estimated time of restoration for power, for propane deliveries, for firewood, for communication lines coming back?”

“Whether it’s a wildfire or flood or winter storm,” these types of questions “inform YubaNet’s coverage,” Fusshoeller explained. 

“The information we’re providing is for people impacted directly by the disaster,” Fusshoeller said. That includes things like sharing the latest restoration updates from local officials, collecting on-the-ground reports from residents, and connecting readers in need with nearby organizations providing support. “It’s something we’re pretty good at.”

2. Do more with the right tools

In the hours after the December snowstorm, YubaNet reported that there were 32,000 customers with power outages in Western Nevada County, plus a total of 94,000 customers in the neighboring counties.

 “That equates to about 250,000 actual people,” Fusshoeller explained.

At the same time, roads were impassable and most local radio stations went off the air. “People were stuck at home, with very few means of communication.”

That’s when Fusshoeller jumped into action. To ask residents about their situations, she created a form using Gravity Forms, a third-party tool that’s included with Newspack. The form included questions about power outages, road conditions, home damage, propane levels and more. 

Nearly 4,500 readers filled out YubaNet’s form, an impressive number considering the power and communications outages. Those responses were used to create maps, provide details in stories, and inform local officials. 

“We ended up sharing the data with the local office of emergency services because they did not have any way of finding out who needed evacuating,” Fusshoeller said. “People were just happy to be heard. We gave them a platform to vent and also relay their needs.”

One of their biggest needs, Fusshoeller learned, was firewood. 

“I had no idea there were this many people in the foothills still using wood stoves as their sole means of heating a house,” she said. After multiple readers reported running out, the YubaNet team reached out to local leaders, who coordinated with a couple of local nonprofits that set up distribution sites for firewood. 

Fusshoeller also used Newspack tools to map the worst-hit areas, resurface evergreen content related to snowstorms, and categorize disaster resources in easy-to-read lists — information that was accessible via mobile, for residents with limited connectivity.

Most of all, Fusshoeller was thrilled that, despite experiencing record traffic, subsisting on generator power for 10 days, and doing it all with a two-person team, “the site and the tools performed flawlessly.”

“During a disaster, people really pull together,” she said. “To be able to facilitate that is part of our job description. We’re more community service news than anything else and it was really great to see that it all worked.”

The forms created for the event will be repurposed in upcoming emergencies, Fusshoeller said. “Instant feedback driving reporting is priceless.”

3. Remember why you do what you do

Fusshoeller admits that running YubaNet can be “exhausting.” In the past 23 years, the Luxembourg native hasn’t had a vacation that’s lasted longer than three days. “And being European, I’m used to having real vacations!” she laughed. 

Still, Fusshoeller and Levitz are committed to YubaNet.

“What keeps both of us going is the need that the community has to have this type of public-service journalism,” Fusshoeller said.

“When there’s a wildfire, metro TV stations will parachute in. They have a helicopter and will show aerial views and have a standup with flames in the background — and that’s great. Meanwhile, we’ll be sitting here in our not-air-conditioned office, telling people what direction the fire is burning and what the latest evacuation routes are.”

It’s journalism on a much smaller scale, Fusshoeller explained, and it’s vitally important. 

“Every once in a while, we’ll hear from people that we really made a difference,” she said. 

Fusshoeller and Levitz hold tightly to those comments. They remember hearing from readers who were able to evacuate relatives from fire zones, thanks to their coverage. They remember the times that they were able to hold local officials accountable, by reminding them of previous promises they had made. They remember why they started running YubaNet in the first place: to keep their beloved community informed.

“Besides,” Fusshoeller said with a laugh, “What else would I be doing?”