By Frank Festa
In two years, New Jersey was hit by two strong hurricanes — Irene in 2011 and Sandy in 2012.
During both those times, residents of the state had a place to turn to for information — the Facebook page of Jersey Shore Hurricane News.
The founder of the page paid Janet Mazur’s Freshman Seminar Program class a visit this past Thursday, Oct. 23, to lecture on the impact he’s made on his community as well as the profound impact he believes we all can make.
Justin Auciello, a native of South Seaside Park, created the Facebook page on Friday, Aug. 23, 2011. It was made with the intent to provide news about the weather in the days preceding Hurricane Irene. Auciello, or anyone else for that matter, could have predicted its growth.
“By the end of the first night, there were 500 followers, which was shocking enough,” Auciello said. “The next morning, there were 5,000 followers. I couldn’t believe it.”
After the passing of Irene, he kept the page alive even without a storm looming.
“I tried to humanize the page,” Auciello said. “I’d make a post or two every day and comment on everything I could.”
The page flourished and began to garner national attention during and in the days following the cataclysm of Superstorm Sandy, one of New Jersey’s most devastating natural disasters. By this time however, JSHN was a two-way news platform where information flowed freely between people.
“During Sandy, citizens would supply information, and my job was to package it, verify it and post it,” Auciello said. “If I’ve learned anything from this, it’s that people are good. I’ve always been an optimist.”
Updates poured in from people with knowledge of the situation, keeping those in the heart of the storm aware — many of whom without access to tradition news.
When the page’s activity in its climax took an unexpected turn, Auciello rose to the occasion.
“It went from info news to lifesaving platform. People were posting after Sandy that they were trapped and needed help,” Auciello said.
Due to a relationship formed with the local authorities, Auciello was able to turn JSHN into a bridge to salvation.
“I urged these people to post their address, condition of and how many people they were with — relevant information,” Auciello said.
“Police and fire departments would be notified, and help would arrive.”
The page would also play a critical crowdsourcing role, with patrons updating peers on information such as where to find food, clean water and cheap gas, as well as directing supplies to appropriate shelters.
“I tried to keep JSHN updated on where to find supplies every half an hour,” he said. “I had shelters calling me to tell me to send supplies elsewhere because they had a surplus. But once something goes viral there’s no way to really delete that information.”
His efforts with JSHN were recognized when Auciello received the Champion of Change award from the White House, given to individuals making profound impacts on their communities.
“A woman called one day from the White House and invited me to visit with 12 other people and receive the award. I didn’t get to meet President Obama, but it still was a special experience,” he said.
Fast forward to present day, three years later, JSHN has accumulated over 226,000 followers.
Mazur admits to being one of the many who keep an eye on Auciello’s page.
“I was struck with the devastation caused by Sandy. I’ve been a subscriber to Jersey Shore Hurricane News for some time, and I love what you are doing,” Mazur said to Auciello.
Moving forward, Auciello doesn’t plan to move far from his roots anytime soon.
“I plan to stay social media based, because that’s where the people are and where news is broken,” he said.
The website’s creator received his B.A. from Maryland University in criminal justice and criminology, and later received his masters in city and regional planning from Rutgers University.
He currently holds a full-time job as an urban planner in addition to his activity online. Auciello fondly recalled times at 5 or 6 years old when he would chase fire trucks to the scene, or at 13 doing projects on interesting dog pictures as his journalistic inspiration.
His goal was to impact his community and provide news in an innovative fashion. Humble certainly would be an appropriate adjective to describe him.
“This couldn’t have been with just me,” Auciello said. “I simply provided people with a platform, this is all thanks to people who want to share information with each other and do the right thing.”
Auciello not only enjoys what he does, but he points out that everyone can do something like what he did and help people.
“It gives me purpose. I love my community and this was my way of giving back,” Auciello said. “It’s as simple as putting your foot out there and taking a chance. Everyone has the ability to be creative and make an impact.”