Last week’s 5.8 magnitude earthquake along the east coast and the subsequent battering by Hurricane Irene unleashed not only a heavy dose of nature’s fury, but also a torrent of social media messaging.

And perhaps more than ever before, the federal government played a prominent role in the dialogue. While figures for this past week’s activity are still being gathered, a snapshot of social media use by federal agencies in mid-August, assembled by Breaking Gov, shows its no longer just the White House that is gaining a growing social media following.

Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and mobile apps are hardly new to federal agencies. NASA has been active on YouTube since June 2008 and The White House launched its first YouTube channel the day President Obama took office, Jan. 20, 2009.

“The Obama Administration has been a leader in the use of video,”said Bev Godwin, who took a leave from the General Services Administration in 2009 to serve as The White House director of new media for the first eight months of the Obama Administration.

Godwin, who is now back at GSA as director of GSA’s Federal Citizen Information Center, noted that “We modeled the U.S. Government channel after the White House channel.

But with the exception of the White House — where President Obama has the third highest number of Twitter followers, at more than 9 million, behind Lady Gaga and Justin Beiber–and more than 22 million Facebook fans–the use of Twitter and Facebook by agencies has taken much longer to catch on.

That’s in part because of statutes and agency policies that made it nearly impossible for federal employees to use social media tools to survey or interact with the public for official business purposes.

Much of that changed when the Obama Administration issued a December 2009 directive to federal agencies to take specific actions to be more transparent, participative and collaborative.

Federal employees, however, were still hampered by a variety of legal restrictions.

Service agreements by social media providers, for instance, which consumers “accept” virtually without a second thought could not be by signed government entities.

It took a concerted effort by GSA lawyers to get two dozen of the social media services, including Facebook and Twitter, to rewrite their agreements to apply to government agencies rather than individuals before agency officials were willing to begin experimenting with social media sites.

Even then, years of strict controls and conditioning about who could speak for agencies left many federal employees gun shy about blogging messages openly on behalf of agencies.

That has changed as agency leaders and their public affairs specialists have seen how social media tools are making their jobs easier in getting important information out to the public, and increasingly, getting feedback from the public.

“The sooner we are able to ascertain the on-the-ground reality of a situation, the better we will be able to coordinate our response effort in support of our citizens and first responders,” FEMA Administrator, Craig Fugate, in recent testimony before Congress. Through the use of social media, FEMA “can disseminate important information to individuals and communities, while also receiving essential real-time updates from those with first-hand awareness,” he said.