The power of social media has been demonstrated once again with the most recent natural disaster taking place in Houston, Texas. By now, we have all heard about Hurricane Harvey and the devastation it left behind. In times of uncertainty and desperation, tons of victims decided to turn to social media for a chance to be heard and rescued. Although 911 is still the number one emergency number, not everyone was able to get through. People turned to Facebook and Twitter as a last cry for help, stuck on roofs and waist-deep in water. #sosharvey and #helphouston were used to locate victims and dedicated accounts such as @HarveyRescue gathered information about those in need.
Countless pictures were posted on social media of Harvey victims trapped on rooftops, stuck inside buildings; Facebook even activated its safety check for users to share if they were safe, ask for help and even offer services. Being able to mark yourself safe on Facebook or check into places are not necessarily new. However, social media channels were overwhelmed with pictures of scenes of devastation that the regular media couldn’t get their hands on. This is why we are calling this a never before seen “Social Media Storm”. Some calls for help even went viral, attracting attention and in some cases saving lives.
A nursing home close to Houston was pushed to number one on the priority list after a picture of residents in need was posted on Twitter. In that viral picture, the residents, some in wheelchairs, were up to their chests deep in water. The owner’s son-in-law posted the picture on Sunday, getting over 4.800 retweets. People were so shocked by the dramatic picture, some even thought it was a hoax. However, thanks to the countless retweets and newspaper attention, the nursing home residents were saved the same day the picture was posted.
Maritza Willis tweeted Sunday morning: “I have 2 children with me and the water is swallowing us up. Please send help.” Since 911 dispatchers were not responding because of the overwhelming number of calls coming in, she decided to head on over to social media. She shared her address on Facebook with her 463 followers as a call for help. About an hour later she tweeted that help had reached her family. “Got picked up by the fire rescue. Thank You. One of you had connections and all I can say is I’ll be eternally grateful!!!”
I have 2 children with me and tge,water is swallowing us up. Please send help.
911 is not responding!!!!!!
— Maritza RITZ Willis (@RitzWillis) August 27, 2017
Although officials state that 911 systems are still the number one rescue platform, unlike social media, 911 has constraints. The 911 operating systems are limited by the amount of phone lines and people available on the other side to answer. With social media however, help can come from everyone, everywhere, anytime. Anyone who sees a plea for help can come to the rescue using boats and vehicles or communicate to others the severity of a situation.
No authority or public service agency would be fully equipped to handle a natural disaster such as Harvey; social media has demonstrated its power and its effectiveness in times of crisis. Both victims searching for help, as well as volunteers and policemen turned to social media. They were posting their numbers and instructions on Twitter and Facebook to speed up the rescue process. Although some cell phone towers failed during the tropical storm, most were still able to stay online. That’s how most citizens were able to stay up-to-date with the latest news from local officials.
There are many examples and stories of how victims were saved (maybe even from death) thanks to social media. It’s safe to say social media has proven its power again in situations of emergency and crisis. Although there are a lot of negative aspects to Facebook, this week proved how it remains a social platform with concerns for fellow humans. Hurricane Harvey’s damage is already estimated to cost about 180 billion US dollars and unfortunately has caused 50 deaths so far. Let’s hope Facebook and Twitter will be as powerful when Hurricane Irma reaches Puerto Rico and Florida this weekend.