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What Harvey and Irma Taught Us About Using Social Media in Emergency Response

Updating best practices in the aftermath of relief efforts can take years to coordinate. But emergency responders are finding that social media is an effective component for relief efforts.

As water levels began rising across Florida in Hurricane Irma's early days last week, many Florida residents were urged to download Zello, an app that served as a digital walkie-talkie of sorts. When Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston and its surrounding areas just one week prior, Zello had emerged as a literal lifeline, allowing Good Samaritans to coordinate and offer aid to first responder rescue efforts.

While Houston-area emergency services used social media to broadcast updates, Texans affected by Harvey's torrential waters were generally discouraged by official sources from using Twitter, Facebook, and other forms of social sharing, citing concerns about robbery, misinformation, and widespread panic. But the immediate impact of Zello and other forms of social media for Harvey evacuees can't be denied—Zello has now topped the charts of the iTunes store, and emergency responders are beginning to cite social media as a tool to utilize.

As Florida, Georgia, and the Caribbean begin to recover from losses that include 23 dead, millions left without power, and damage to 90 percent of homes in the Florida Keys, government officials are charting new courses for emergency response. And after Harvey and Irma, they're finding that, in an age where both destruction and digital trends evolve quicker than they can be studied, ground-level interaction provides a critical component to recovery efforts.

Take the case of D'Antrese McNeil. In the aftermath of Harvey, McNeil found herself stranded in her flooded Houston home, overcome with grief—not for herself, but for those she couldn't help. Immediately after the hurricane hit, McNeil began working around the clock as a volunteer dispatcher for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, connecting individuals seeking help to the members of the agency who were on the ground. Though it was rewarding work, it was also frustrating.

"I had to tell people I couldn't get anyone [to them] for at least a few hours. Many of them were stuck on their roofs. It was so heartbreaking," McNeil says. "I was doing my best, but the calls were so backed-up."

She found her answer through social media. McNeil began using her personal page to post "Hurricane Harvey Volunteer Opportunities," so others could become aware of ways to become involved. It also put her in touch with victims of the storm who might otherwise not have contacted her.

"Social media played a big part [in our rescue efforts] as people provided addresses for themselves and family members, we were able to provide dispatchers with an address that made it easier to find them," McNeil says. And it wasn't just McNeil: With the Coast Guard receiving over 1,000 calls per hour, social media quickly became part of the modus operandi.

"It's at least a tiny bit comforting for someone who needs to be rescued to be able to see that people on Twitter or Facebook or whatever are trying to figure out how to get help to them."

While first responders and organizations like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration originally cautioned against the use of social media for rescues, its inclusion by grassroots responders pointed to the value of access in immediate rescue. Sites like Facebook and Twitter increased access for critical alerts to audiences who might not otherwise have been watching the news, and centralized information at a time where panicked citizens were often rationing energy for their devices. In many cases, social media also assisted individuals in reaching public figures who, in turn, could help spread awareness of need.

New York Times best-selling author Shea Serrano is one such example. A Houston resident with over 160,000 Twitter followers, he began using his platform to bring attention to individuals in the worst of the storm. As Serrano explains, there is no point of such a broad reach without attempting to leave an impact. Though he refuses to admit to having directly changed anything (he coordinated multiple successful rescue efforts and raised over $130,000 in just days), he does think using his substantial platform has brought some benefits.

"It's at least a tiny bit comforting for someone who needs to be rescued to be able to see that people on Twitter or Facebook or whatever are trying to figure out how to get help to them," Serrano says. "The more I [could] talk about the hurricane and its destruction and the people it's affecting, the more we [were able to] influence people to help out with donations."

Serrano also mentioned the benefits of social media for those who might be otherwise overlooked by traditional media.

"There are lots of times where, say, someone who wouldn't otherwise know how to get in contact with an emergency rescue unit can do so when they have a bunch of people lobbying for them [with their] numbers on Twitter or Facebook," Serrano says. "It's also helpful for undocumented immigrants because it's this unofficial thing that they can use."

Those with smaller platforms can be just as useful in spreading information.

LaDawn Fletcher, a Web content writer, and her husband were challenged with finding a safe route to her cousin's house when their Texas neighborhood shifted from a "voluntary" to mandatory evacuation zone. Since evacuating, Fletcher has been using social media to share frequent updates about conditions, messages from public officials, and the safest routes for evacuation.

"You're trapped, and you want to be useful. I've been a subscriber to all of the city updates, I understand how the water system works here. So I do my best to take that information and push it out to people I know will need it and hope the push it out to people they know," she says.

In a video grab from a cell phone, a flooded street is seen as Hurricane Irma moves through Miami, Florida, on September 10th, 2017.

In a video grab from a cell phone, a flooded street is seen as Hurricane Irma moves through Miami, Florida, on September 10th, 2017.

According to Fletcher, it's important to spread information in a way that conveys urgency but isn't irresponsible and terrifying. In an era of "fake news," Fletcher has found that many in her own circles express levels of distrust for traditional media during natural disasters. While detractors cite social media for spreading fake news, for many, social media provided the images of Harvey necessary for them to take the situation seriously and take action for others.

Fletcher notes that, in the hours before Harvey hit, many in the area grew weary of the near-constant official alarms, and simply ignored the warnings. She says it wasn't until the panic started to really spread on social media that people were spurred to action. "I think if people hear things from people they know, they respond better than they do to notices," Fletcher says.

Fletcher and her family evacuated to the home of a cousin living in Sienna, Texas; when she reached her cousin's house, she found they had also taken in another family, which included three adults and four large dogs. Christine Taylor, the matriarch of this group staying with Fletcher's family, says they used the social media app NextDoor to learn about their own town's mandatory evacuation status, and to find a family that would take them in.

"Through the app, we got additional details on what was happening," Taylor says. When local media reports about individuals helping with evacuation efforts proved false, NextDoor users in the Taylor's vicinity offered information. Sure, there were state troopers in the area, but they had little to offer the Taylor family in terms of which roads were accessible—a service her neighbors were able to provide in real-time via the app.

The grassroots efforts of residents using social media had an immediate impact on governmental services. In Houston, for example, community leaders and council members used Twitter to communicate with constituents. City officials used Facebook live streams to increase access to press conferences; multiple organizations, including the Coast Guard, the Office of Emergency Management, and the NOAA, increased their direct response efforts through the social platforms, as opposed to merely using platforms as outbound communication tools.

This proved especially useful for Plano, Texas, resident Lauren LeBlanc. After finding out her grandmother—who suffers from pulmonary fibrosis—was stranded at home, LeBlanc used social media to connect with a variety of officials from the Coast Guard and OEM, along with everyday citizens with boats. Her tweets caught the attention of a local newscaster via a former high school classmate, who coordinated the outreach.

The grandmother was ultimately rescued.