Social media as lifeline, mobilizer during Hurricane Harvey, aftermath

Platforms including Twitter and Facebook Live continue to demonstrate their power as emergency communication mediums during Houston coastal disaster.

Posted August 30th, 2017

Chandler Prude / ContributedKeri Stephens, associate professor of organizational communication and technology at the University of Texas at Austin's Moody College of Communication, says that as 911 lines were unavailable during Hurricane Harvey, victims of flooding turned to any communication medium they could, including social media, for help.

When faced with the loss of their homes and, in some cases, the possibility of death, victims of Hurricane Harvey reached for the tool so many of us use every day: their smart phones. 

Whether they were trying to share photos and videos of the devastation for the world to see or reaching out to friends and family in hopes of rescue, many used social media services including Facebook, Twitter or whatever they had at their disposal.

It created and spread harrowing, memorable images (a Tweeted photo of a group of seniors sitting in waist-deep floodwater at a nursing home), politicized fights (”Why no mass evacuation?” some complained online) and even some much-needed, heartfelt laughs (a lone dog heroically carrying a bag of food through the storm).

But as with every new major news event and disaster, it became clear that social media has gone from something that felt like it could be a passing fad to a set of vital communication tools, useful for quickly sending alerts, giving real-time video feeds of major events and opening the door for fundraising and debate (often too much debate) on how relief efforts should be coordinated.

University of Texas associate professor Keri Stephens said one of the most interesting aspects of the social media response to Hurricane Harvey was the way that social media by necessity supplanted traditional 911 services when the phones lines became overloaded.

Stephens, who researches the ways 911 is used in emergencies, said she was frustrated, but not surprised that those services were overwhelmed in Houston. She saw people using whatever tools they had during the storm. 

“People have to use every mode possible to get the word out,” Stephens said. “Social media expands their network and is a different way to broadcast, ‘I need help.’ But it’s more than just that. We all have small networks relatively speaking, but because we know people who know people who know people, there’s the power of the network to disseminate health information that is probably here to stay.”

In the case of the nursing home photo, which was originally Tweeted on Sunday of the La Vita Bella facility in Dickinson, Texas, it took about three hours for the Tweet to spur the rescue of about 20 people after the son-in-law of the nursing home owner, author Timothy McIntosh, posted.

In another incident, a Tweeted photo of a family waiting for rescue on a rooftop was spread through several social media networks, leading to a rescue. 

Stephens said that such incidents are likely to spur discussion on whether there should be a nationwide effort to allow people to text 911 in emergencies and could cause some to re-evaluate how emergency networks are built to handle massive disasters.

The technology of social media, which was largely text-and image based 10 years ago, has benefited from faster wireless networks with more capacity and with more evolved mobile devices that are better equipped to stream live video or to quickly post photos. While some cell networks did go down during the hurricane and its aftermath, it was not unusual to see video and live updates from those in the middle of the storm even from people without electricity, something that would have been unlikely a decade ago.

For Stephens, her interest in the topic is more than academic. When she was in third grade, her family lost everything in South Bend, Texas, floods from the Brazos River. “Every time something like this happens, I’m drawn to it and want to do something to help,” she said. “I know what kind of devastation this is.” 

Screenshot via Facebook

In addition to rescue efforts, social media was also a way for those who felt helpless as witnesses and unable to help to mobilize local donation efforts and to help guide volunteers and emergency personnel to where they might be needed by re-sharing posts.

Stephens said it’s natural to feel helpless in the face of images and video of devastation. “We still feel that angst and that desire to help. When you don’t have resources, soecial media might be our best way to spread information when we don’t know the people (affected),” she said.

Over the weekend, many news sites, personal social media feeds and websites for nonprofits, artists and businesses had curated information donations and the best way to hep volunteer efforts. People reposted direct lines to text donations to the American Red Cross and other organizations. Officials in coastal cities posted continual updates on road conditions and advisories for those seeking help and shelter.

But if some corners of social media did their best to humanize the hurrican’s tragedies and lend a hand, the online networks were also unsurprisingly places where politicized anger, petty debate, scams and abuse went on, largely uncheked.

Among the topics that created heat as the hurricane raged were whether pastor Joel Osteen’s Houston megachurch should have opened its door sooner to hurricane victims, predictably heated talk about President Donald Trump’s visit to Texas, and second guessing on whether Texas officials should have ordered a mass evacuation of the Houston area. (Social media was in its infancy during Hurricane Rita, when such an evacuation was attempted.)

Among some of the ugliest rhetoric: whether suffering Texans should be left to fend for themselves based on which politicans were elected to run the state, and racist, classist commentary about hurricane victims

Fake news didn’t slow down for the weather; a fabricated image of a shark swimming alongside traffic and one of airplanes submerged in water at an airport were debunked over on, but many still passed them along and the shark image ended up on Fox News, reported as real.

But the most compelling social media moments were the human and almost-human dramas: volunteer boat rescues, a grandmother being escorted from her home via jet skiabandoned pets and heroic storm chasers.

Despite the chaos, the heartbreak and the anger, some still found that social media could still be a place for weird surprises.

When asked what the most interesting thing he saw on social media was, Houston resident Bill Shirley described a non-public Facebook post he came across: “Inflatable sex doll floating down neighborhood street,” he wrote