Social Media–Increasingly Useful in Responding to Natural Disasters

Robert Southers*

As discussed in the Divided Community Project’s report, Divided Communities and Social Media, social media and internet can be a powerful tool to help community leaders better serve their communities. Following Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the same tools discussed in Social Media have been invaluable in aiding those affected by the storms. Communities have used trusted online information sources to relay information to residents; emergency officials have monitored social media to learn about residents in need.  Although these tools have been used in natural disasters elsewhere in the world, Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have provided some of the first insights into how American communities and leaders will utilize social media and the internet to provide relief as quickly and efficiently as possible.[1]

Almost immediately following Hurricane Harvey, the Twitter hashtags #SOSHouston and #SOSHarvey began to trend with victims calling for help.[2] With city, state, and federal resources stretched beyond capacity, Twitter evolved into a platform for rescue efforts, specifically assisting emergency workers find those in need. Twitter users shared the location and number of people at each location in need of aid; this allowed for rescuers already in the area to quickly respond and bring those in need to safety.[3]

Bobby Lopez was one of those individuals who turned to social media for help.[4] Bobby’s parents and nephew were trapped by the rising floodwaters and unable to escape; their home would soon be engulfed by water if help did not arrive quickly.[5] Bobby tried to call 911, but dispatchers were already overwhelmed with other calls.[6] Unable to reach his loved ones by truck, Bobby turned to twitter: “’My mom is stuck in Songwood!’ he tweeted, tagging, among others, an unofficial Houston Fire Department rescue account and the Houston Police Department. ‘Mom elderly and disabled and have my nephew.’”[7] Bobby’s pleas for help were seen by a neighbor with a boat and all three were taken from the home to safety.[8]

While individuals affected by Hurricane Irma used social media for rescue attempts in similar ways as those affected by Hurricane Harvey,[9] leaders in Florida utilized social media in unique ways to ensure the best response to the storm as possible.[10] Florida’s tourism office used targeted Facebook messaging to reach out to over 280,000 people believed to be visiting the state prior to Irma’s landfall advising them on precautions to take leading up to and during the storm.[11] Florida’s governor, Rick Scott also worked closely with Google to ensure that Google Maps provided up to date information on road closures throughout the state.[12]The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration used Twitter to provide people in the affected area with real-time weather forecasts as the hurricane changed course.[13] The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Urban Risk Lab used a chat bot on Facebook, Twitter, and Telegram to allow for crowd sourced information on flooding, allowing the organization to create a real-time map of flooding throughout the state.[14] While Snapchat’s map feature provided a similar service,[15] MIT’s flooding map provided greater in-depth information on flooding by having the chat bot ask for specific information from those affected by flooding rather than only showing pictures and videos taken by those in the area.

Although social media was a valuable tool during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the way it is used has evolved dramatically in the past five years.[16] In 2012, social media provided the world with pictures and videos of the damage that traditional news sources could not reach.[17] While social media users still provided information and images from areas that journalists may otherwise be unable to reach, such as videos of construction cranes being blown over in high winds in Miami,[18] efforts to coordinate to rescue and recovery efforts through social media were not present after previous storms.[19]

Despite the benefits of using social media during national disasters, it is not a perfect solution, nor has it been utilized without problems. For example, community leaders in Texas discouraged victims of the storm from using social media to ask for help.[20] Although 911 was overwhelmed with calls leaving many unable to reach emergency services, only private rescuers turned to social media to find those victims who could not use traditional methods to seek help.[21]

Social media is a powerful tool that community leaders can use to better serve their communities, whether in times of disaster or times of peace. It can allow for the rapid dissemination of information as well as a wealth of information that may otherwise not be available. However, it is not a perfect solution. Community leaders should continue to consider the advantages and disadvantages of social media as they serve their communities through all situations.  For more ideas about how to take advantage of social media’s opportunities in your community, take a look at the Project’s report, Social Media.


*Southers is currently the Fellow at the Franklin County Municipal Court Self Help Resource Center. He is a graduate of The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and a former DCP research assistant.  This article does not reflect the position of The Ohio State University nor the Franklin County Municipal Court.


Photo Credit: J. Daniel EscarenoHarvey Day 5-12, Creative Commons License CC-BY-ND 2.0


[1] http://money.cnn.com/2017/08/28/media/harvey-rescues-social-media-facebook-twitter/index.html
[2] https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/hurricane-harvey/soshouston-how-apps-social-media-assist-harvey-rescue-efforts-n797841
[3] http://mashable.com/2017/08/29/social-media-harvey-rescues-force-for-good/#hnAfTDQpPOqj
[4] https://www.dallasnews.com/news/weather/2017/08/27/911-failed-desperate-harvey-victims-took-social-media-help
[5] Id.
[6] Id.
[7] Id.
[8] Id.
[9] http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/wireStory/social-media-word-irma-emergency-49785921
[10] https://www.wsj.com/articles/for-hurricane-irma-information-officials-post-on-social-media-1505149661
[11] Id.
[12] Id.
[13] Id.
[14] https://riskmap.us; see also http://news.mit.edu/2017/map-real-time-crowd-sourced-flood-reporting-hurricane-irma-0908; https://www.theverge.com/2017/9/9/16280250/mit-urban-risk-lab-riskmap-hurricane-irma-real-time-crowdsource-flood-reporting.
[15] http://elitedaily.com/social-news/snapchat-tracking-flooding-houston-hurricane-harvey/2056941/
[16] http://mashable.com/2017/08/29/social-media-harvey-rescues-force-for-good/#hnAfTDQpPOqj
[17] Id.
[18] https://twitter.com/wxkev/status/906887989497868288; https://twitter.com/treyKAHrahTAY/status/907022817748819968/video/1
[19] http://mashable.com/2017/08/29/social-media-harvey-rescues-force-for-good/#hnAfTDQpPOqj
[20] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/harvey-social-media_us_59a47f42e4b050afa90c1049
[21] Id.