Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on November 1, 2017.


Discouraged by swamped emergency phone lines, Harvey victims turned to social media to broadcast pleas for rescue or assistance


As Hurricane Harvey bore down on Houston, the city’s 911 system and other emergency telephone lines were bogged down by a flurry of activity. Callers reported being on hold for as long as 45 minutes, while others couldn’t get through at all.

  • Read the January/February 2014 NFPA Journal feature article, “#AreYouPrepared?”

That’s when many turned to social media websites like Facebook and Twitter to broadcast their cries for help, which were then shared by other users.

“There is a 6 y/o, a 4 y/o, and one paralyzed in a wheelchair with no way out. Send help,” one Houston area resident tweeted at about 9 p.m. on August 27, along with an address. “PLEASE PLEASE IN NEED OF RESCUE, BEEN STRANDED FOUR HOURS,” another had tweeted earlier, also with an address. Hashtags like #SOSHarvey and #HarveyRescue began trending. Facebook hosted similar pleas as the hurricane swept through the Houston area, with users taking advantage of the site’s GPS feature to show people where rescue assistance was needed.

By some accounts, it was a success, especially for private rescue groups who otherwise wouldn’t have known where to look for people in danger, according to a CNN article. Even first responders reportedly fielded the posts in an attempt to uncover dire situations. It was a reversal of the role social media has traditionally played during disasters. Instead of serving mainly as a means of emergency agencies sharing information with the public, social media became an impromptu 911 line, where the public was communicating distress calls to emergency agencies and other members of the public.

For all its benefits, though, the trend had emergency management experts worried that people were relying solely on social media to report emergencies, putting themselves at risk for falling through the cracks of an unproven system overflowing with messages. The use of social media to report emergencies became so widespread that federal officials weighed in, urging people to instead use the established emergency phone lines; if the lines don’t work, officials said, keep trying. “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,” the U.S. Coast Guard tweeted on August 27. Users largely ignored the message, though, even posting distress calls in the replies section of that tweet. “You can’t get through to any lines,” one user complained.

The Red Cross worked to bolster warnings like the one issued by the Coast Guard, said Cynthia Shaw, chief communications and marketing officer for the American Red Cross’ Northern California coastal region. “One of the great things about social media is that it’s a quick mechanism,” she said. “But in emergency response, you can’t always respond as quickly as you want, so we were trying to tell people, ‘If you’re in life-threatening danger, don’t tweet about it, don’t go on Facebook live, call the correct number.’”

Quality control

In an interview with NPR in September, Rob Dudgeon, an emergency management consultant, equated trying to read and respond to every distress call on social media as “trying to drink from a firehose.”

Still, social media was credited with accelerating some rescues during Harvey. Perhaps the most influential post was a photo showing a group of nursing home residents, some in wheelchairs, submerged in water up to their chests. The image went viral after being shared on Twitter, and the residents were rescued the same day. The man who first shared the photo credited their rescue to the thousands of social media users who circulated the image.

While Harvey was far from the first time social media was widely used during a disaster, the storm’s rapidly rising floodwaters combined with Houston’s large population and overwhelmed 911 system led to the spike in people using social media to make distress calls, according to Shaw. “All three of those amplified what we saw,” she said.

In the past, social media has been used mainly to spread information to the public during disasters. For example, as Hurricane Sandy prepared to slam into the northeastern United States in 2012, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office used YouTube and Facebook to deliver critical information to New Yorkers.

That was around the same time the Red Cross began working with computer giant Dell to implement a robust social media monitoring system. The organization now runs three digital operations centers across the country which allow it to keep tabs on social media posts and trends during disasters. NFPA also took note of the growing role social media was playing during disasters. After a social media task force examined the issue, language was added to the 2016 edition of NFPA 1600, Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity Programs, that essentially added social media each time a list of information-sharing mechanisms appear, such as media, email, and similar terms.

Social media played a similar role in disseminating information during Harvey, but, as in the past, it also became a source of misinformation. To help clear up inaccuracies, FEMA created a website, dedicated to separating fact from fiction—a measure also taken during Hurricane Sandy as well as Irma, which plowed through the Caribbean and up Florida just days after Harvey, and Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico days later. The site created for Harvey dispelled a number of false claims, such as one asserting that exposure to tainted floodwaters could lead to the plague—an exceptionally rare sickness in the U.S., and one that is typically spread through fleas, not floodwaters—and that hotels and motels are required to accept pets—only service animals must be accepted, since they do not fall under the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act of 2006.

The Red Cross was also diligent in dispelling these inaccuracies, said Shaw. She stressed that people seeking information on social media during disasters need to be especially cognizant of who or what is disseminating that information. “We had some challenges,” she said, reflecting on both Harvey and Irma. “The wrong Coast Guard number was being circulated. The wrong shelter location was being circulated. Ninety-nine percent of the time the false information wasn’t coming from verified sources. So people should always look to make sure their local emergency management or some other agency actively involved is giving out the same info.”

The use of social media didn’t die out with the end of Harvey, either. On Facebook, for example, a support group for Harvey victims has swelled to include more than 135,000 members, where members continue to post information and questions on topics like cleanup and aid. On September 26, one member posted a heartfelt message to active members. “Just wanted to tell everyone contributing to this page thank you for being the beauty of humanity,” he wrote.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal.