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Hurricane Harvey shows benefits, risks of turning to social media in disaster

In this Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017, photo provided by Trudy Lampson, residents of the La Vita Bella nursing home in Dickinson, Texas, sit in waist-deep flood waters caused by Hurricane Harvey. Authorities said all the residents were safely evacuated from the facility. (Trudy Lampson via AP)

Social media is playing a significant role in the rescue efforts amid the damage inflicted by Hurricane Harvey, as desperate Texans reach out for assistance in ways that were not possible the last time the region was battered by a storm of a similar scale.

During Hurricane Katrina and its chaotic aftermath in 2005, there was no Twitter and Facebook was far from the ubiquitous presence it is today. Two years before the release of the first iPhone, internet access on mobile devices was still fairly primitive.

People who could get online turned to blogs and Craigslist postings to get their stories out. Several websites were set up to help victims make contact with family members outside the disaster zone.

According to Jeannette Sutton, director of the Risk and Disaster Communications Center at the University of Kentucky, 2017 is a “dramatically different” world.

Digging further back, Kelli Burns, an associate professor in the School of Mass Communications at the University of South Florida, pointed to Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and the challenges FEMA faced in the wake of its devastation to Florida’s communications, media, and utility systems. According to an official evaluation conducted afterward, efforts to distribute information included messages displayed on the Goodyear blimp at night and “a 4-day roadshow of Disney characters visiting children throughout the disaster area.”

“In 2005, we didn’t have social media, so Hurricane Katrina unfolded without people being able to share information, things they were seeing…they couldn’t get that information out to the public,” she said.

“We have come a long way,” said Burns, author of “Celeb 2.0: How Social Media Foster Our Fascination with Popular Culture.”

Harvey is the biggest storm to hit the U.S. mainland since Twitter was born. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy offered one of the first examples of how valuable social media networks can be during a natural disaster, but the capabilities of smart devices have evolved significantly since then.

“Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook are a lifeline for many of the people affected by this tragedy,” Burns said. “People are using social media to share that they need help, and emergency responders are using social media to connect with people to provide critical information and assistance.”

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Residents trapped in attics and on roofs have shared their locations, often along with photos or videos of their dire circumstances, attempting to guide rescuers to them. Even if they cannot reach emergency crews or the Coast Guard directly, they may get their story to someone else who can.

A woman stuck on a roof with dozens of others appeared on “Good Morning America” Monday via FaceTime begging for help. The show’s producers contacted the National Guard and reported a few hours later that a Coast Guard chopper was on its way to rescue the group.

Timothy McIntosh credits a photo he tweeted for getting the National Guard to his family’s nursing home. The image showed elderly women sitting in chairs and wheelchairs surrounded by waist-deep water, and along with it he posted a call for help.

Thousands shared the photo on Twitter, and the National Guard eventually learned of their plight. The nursing home was moved to the high priority evacuation list and the patients were rescued by helicopter.

Some local officials and law enforcement have engaged with flood victims on Twitter, answering questions and offering assistance. They have also used their Twitter accounts to distribute information quickly and efficiently. The Harris County Sheriff’s Office advised people awaiting rescue Monday to hang a sheet or towel somewhere visible so officers can find them.

Not everyone is a fan of pleas for rescue being broadcast on social media. The Coast Guard continues to urge residents to call their command center rather than tweeting their cries for help.

“To report a #harvey emergency you must call numbers below or 911 for assistance. If busy keep trying. Do not report distress on social media,” they tweeted, along with multiple numbers to call and advice for staying safe until they arrive.

Tweets and Facebook posts can be easily overlooked by rescuers, but many of the people writing them say they cannot get through to 911. With limited battery power, calling over and over again is not always a realistic option.

“It’s in our nature, if we’re not able to get help from one place, we’ll turn to another place,” Sutton said.

Given the magnitude of the storm, she emphasized that there is no realistic solution that would enable authorities to help everyone immediately. There are always lessons to be learned from any disaster, and this one may change the way emergency management officials look at Twitter.

“Ideally, they would have a lot more people who were trained to monitor social media,” Sutton said.

Used effectively, social media could help officials coordinate responses across departments and agencies to focus their resources in the areas most in need of help, according to Burns.

“Government agencies and others involved in hurricane rescue should not only be providing information victims need to know, but also be connected to one another on social media so that they can retweet or share relevant posts by other organizations,” she said.

Having consulted with local governments and worked on an app that crowdsources information from disasters and accidents, Eric Holdeman, former emergency management director for King County, Washington, said he has experienced a disappointing degree of resistance from officials over the years.

“I’ve just been very surprised at the slow rate of adoption of social media as a tool,” he said.

Senior officials, who are often older and do not use social media themselves, may roll their eyes or dismiss Twitter, but if that is where their citizens are, that is where they need to be.

“Just because you don’t ice skate doesn’t mean your organization doesn’t have to ice skate,” Holdeman said.

Beyond helping coordinate rescues, Twitter is providing a real-time and often striking look at conditions on the ground.

Videos and photos show houses and highways almost completely submerged. Rescuers are seen carrying children from flooded homes. Several news crews have captured rescues in progress on camera, and at least a few have rescued people themselves.

The ability to stream live video online from a cell phone is also a relatively new development. Footage of rain and wind tearing through small towns at the height of the storm could be seen around the world as it happened through Periscope and Facebook Live.

At one point on Friday night, 70,000 people were watching storm chaser Jeff Piotrowski stream live from just outside the eye of the storm in Rockport, Texas. That video has now been viewed 1.5 million times.

There have been lighter moments captured on social media as well.

One widely shared photo shows a dog walking through the storm carrying a full bag of dog food. A video of a man fishing in his living room has also gone viral.

A cab driver posted videos to YouTube of a hawk that settled into his passenger seat and refused to leave. He drove it home with him, but he later turned it over to the Texas Wildlife Rehab Coalition.

The impact of social media on disaster response has not been universally positive.

Local officials in Harris County have struggled to slow the spread of rumors and false information about the scale of the storm and the instructions being given to residents. Some fake posts have directed victims to call the wrong numbers for help.

According to Holdeman, this is one more reason why it is important for officials to stay engaged on social media even as they manage other urgent tasks.

“The internet is a wonderful thing for sharing information, but misinformation and mistruth get passed around very quickly,” he said. “If you’re not monitoring social media, you can’t correct it.”

Sutton observed that during Sandy, FEMA set up a web page to address rumors. As the storm and the cleanup drag on in Texas, something similar may be needed.

“People share information,” she said. “When we don’t have access to information, we go searching for things that help us make sense of the situation.”

Scammers may also attempt to use social media posts to lure people into giving to fake charities.

“At a time like this, heart-wrenching stories will be widely shared and nobody will question the veracity of the information,” Burns said. “For the most part, this doesn't cause too many problems, but I would advise people to be careful if they are donating money.”

Particularly in a scenario where loss of power and overloaded cellular networks are common occurrences, social media and mobile phones may not be an ideal means of communication, but for some, it will be the only way.

“Many people don't have a landline today and if the electricity is out, people may not have another connection to news about the crisis and to others who can help,” Burns said. “I would imagine that everyone who evacuated took a phone. Maybe some left with only their phone.”

As part of a team studying social network use after an earthquake in New Zealand a few years ago, Sutton learned people would seek out places where they could recharge their phones and get online, sometimes even printing out information and bringing it back to wherever they were waiting out the disaster.

“We are an information society and we’ve become more and more reliant on these devices,” she said.

People will scour every resource available for information in a crisis, and social media is an increasingly instrumental resource. People stranded by a storm may need to have a portable battery pack or some other means of keeping their phones charged.

“Plan ahead,” Holdeman said. “As far as being able to survive a disaster, the first thing you need is water…but then I say the next thing they need to have to sustain life is not food, it’s information.”

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