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Flood crisis shows ways info can flow

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- This just in: President Obama has ordered a media blackout over a flood-threatened nuclear plant in Nebraska.

Except ... he didn't.

But that hasn't stopped more than 40,000 Facebook users from sharing a recent article from a Pakistani news agency that said he did -- a ripple that turned into a wave, finally prompting officials to publicly deny the rumors.

Welcome to the new world of catastrophe communication, where social media and the internet have hyper-accelerated the way that we spread information and misinformation.

Luckily, that speed has been largely a good thing in a disaster such as the Missouri River flooding.

News of upstream levee breaches and faraway road closures, which previously might have trickled out through a news conference later recounted in a newspaper story or a TV broadcast, now flies out as fast as anyone can type a text message, a tweet or a Facebook post.

Among those leading the way have been emergency management officials in Atchison County, Mo., a lightly populated and flood-endangered county in the northwest corner of the state where their Facebook page has drawn almost 2,000 followers.

"We can put something on there, and within 10 minutes, we've had any number of people repost it to their friends and family," said Mark Manchester, deputy emergency management director for the county. Sometimes it's bad news.

The Army Corps of Engineers has an array of Twitter accounts and maps and charts that put news and numbers to the real-life flood fight that is expected to last all summer.

"We really work hard to get the word out, and the corps tries to tell the story of this flood very aggressively," said Dave Becker, an operations manager for the Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota, where floodwater releases into the lower Missouri River have been tracked almost incessantly by the media and the public.

And the social media help spread that message faster.

Unfortunately, Becker noted, "In this age -- the electronic age, the social media age -- misinformation travels pretty fast too."

Any time spent on fighting false information is time taken away from managing the flood problems.

"The rumors have been as difficult to combat as the rising floodwaters," wrote a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman in a blog post rebutting the Pakistani news article.

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