TILLAR, Ark. — River levels rose with each passing hour. Residents of waterfront towns hurriedly packed sandbags and shoved them up to the foundation of their homes. Meteorologists on television warned that the Arkansas River was about to reach levels that hadn’t been seen in decades.
In late May, Cynthia Murphy desperately tried to find out when and where the water was going to come, but in the small town of Blackwell, Arkansas, there is no news station. There isn’t even a post office.
“I live in a small community that never gets mentioned on the news, or on Facebook, or anywhere else,” she said. “There was no information available.”
Cynthia has worked online for most of her life. She was a recruiter for many years and has always admired the way that the Internet bridges the gaps that news outlets can’t fill.
“I was thinking, too bad there’s not a group where people were posting pictures of what’s going on in each neighborhood, or each little community,” Cynthia said.
A Family Affair
Melanie Murphy, Cynthia’s youngest daughter, also craved more information about the flooding. She followed countless storm chasers, journalists and meteorologists on social media. When her mother suggested they start a Facebook group, she was hesitant at first.
“I didn’t want people to get their news solely from our group,” Melanie said.
The amount of crowdsourcing made her fearful of accidentally spreading misinformation. And as with any social media forum, she knew things could get political.
In the end, the need for it outweighed any risks, Melanie said.
“I didn’t want people to miss out on important information,” she said.
The mother-daughter team created the Arkansas River Historic Flood 2019 group on May 25. In its first day, the group acquired 52 members and then grew beyond anything they ever expected.
“I had a couple of people in mind that were already sharing pictures and videos of the flood, so I thought maybe I’d send them an invite,” Melanie said. “They all joined and then they invited all their friends.”
The Murphys’ hunch was correct: people wanted information quicker than the news could put it out, making this group the perfect way to stay updated. And as the river level rose, so did the group’s numbers.
“I thought maybe 200 or 300 people might be out there, but apparently there is really a need,” Cynthia said.
People from all over Arkansas requested to join. They posted photos, asked questions, offered help and shared their stories.
“There are people from out of state that would join because they have family members here and they could follow what was going on,” Cynthia said.
The group created a sense of community, inspiring some Arkansans to go above and beyond to help those they had never met … literally.
Help From Above
Bill Collins is an agricultural pilot and a lifelong Arkansan. His home wasn’t affected by the flooding, but because he spends most of his time in the sky, he had a bird’s eye view of the areas that weren’t so lucky.
Collins, along with his best friend, Dubs Beyers, noticed that people in the Facebook group were distressed about not knowing the status of the water levels in their homes, which they had to evacuate.
“It was a tremendous amount of water, and it was still rising,” said Collins, adding he had never seen a flood of this magnitude hit the Natural State.The evacuated families could only use boats to get to their homes, which looked like scattered rooftops poking out of the murky, brown water.
Wanting to bring these families closure, the two friends took to the air. Collins piloted his two-seater plane with Beyers in tow with a camera. They toured the damage from above, snapping photos of homes and farms to post in the Facebook group.
“It gave them a sense of relief to know what was happening and what to expect,” Collins said.
He didn’t personally know any of the families affected by the water he was flying over, but he says that’s the beauty of the Arkansas community: “When I see somebody someplace, I know who he is, how it affects them, where they’re coming from and where their heart is.”
There are many more examples of group members offering their time and resources through the forum that the Murphys created.
“I’m just thankful that we were able to help anybody,” Cynthia said.
Now that the river has crested and the water is beginning to recede, the group has taken a new direction: promoting recovery efforts. The news cycle has moved on, but people are just now returning to their homes. The damage that lies before them will take months to undo.
“We don’t want people to forget about them,” Melanie said of the flood victims.
The Murphys have spent countless hours working on this group. Melanie’s screentime was clocked at 80 hours in one week at the peak of the flooding. She plans to create a spinoff group based around photography to continue building community in Arkansas.
“I don’t want a bad disaster to be the only thing bringing people together,” Melanie said.
Cynthia is proud of Melanie’s dedication to the group and her newfound leadership skills. “It was nice to see Melanie’s self-confidence,” she said. “I’ve seen her just blossom over the last two weeks.”
Melanie is currently unemployed, so monitoring, moderating and managing this Facebook group became her full-time job. She says that it helped her in her struggle with depression as well, giving her a sense of purpose.
“To be able to step out of my comfort zone and help people… it’s a big step in my life,” Melanie said.
As of June 12, more than 16,000 people have joined and remain the group. Even as the immediate need for information has slowed down, the Murphys plan to leave the group open as an artifact to remember the history that was made, something that Cynthia supports.
“Ten years from now, a school kid might decide to report that, and this group could come up,” Cynthia said.
Jordan Elder is a recent graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a certificate in leadership and ethics. Her focus is on broadcasting and digital storytelling. Elder was a producer for “Catalyst,” an Arizona PBS series that explores scientific research at ASU, and a production intern for KPNX 12 News for two semesters. She served as a host and contributor to the entertainment news program “Cronkite Cut” for three years. Elder returns to Cronkite School in the fall to complete a master’s degree and report on sustainability issues for Cronkite News. View her portfolio here.