Hurricane Rescuers and Survivors Use Social Media to Call for Help

When 911 services were overwhelmed, stranded Houston residents used their Facebook and Instagram accounts to connect with community rescuers.
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Matthew Koser, hypothermic and shaking, is rescued from atop his car after looking for important papers and heirlooms inside his grandfather’s house after it was flooded by heavy rains from Hurricane Harvey August 29, 2017 in the Bear Creek neighborhood of west Houston, Texas.

Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images.

Since Hurricane Harvey hit Texas Friday night, the storm has devastated the Houston region, flooding neighborhoods, displacing families and creating chaos for residents and rescuers alike. In the midst of that chaos and with emergency services overwhelmed, people have been turning to whatever means they can to get assistance.

Houston resident Dionne Du Jour said her stepdaughter pleaded for help on social media after she learned her mother died and her brother was trapped inside the house with her body for two days.

The social media call for help worked, and the brother was rescued within 24 hours.

Social media became a lifeline.

By some estimates, 911 operators had received more than 75,000 calls for help over a 24-hour period, and by Wednesday officials were still receiving more than 1,000 calls per hour. And with the overload of incoming calls, some residents’ pleas were left unanswered. That’s where social media became a lifeline.

Houston is the nation’s fourth-largest city with more than 2.3 million people living in the area. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has estimated that more than 450,000 people are expected to seek disaster assistance.

Help Gone Viral

Social media has changed how we communicate in many ways, such as seeking quick help in an emergency. But community organizing in chaotic times is nothing new, says Dharma Dailey, a researcher in the University of Washington’s Department of Human Centered Design and Engineering.

Dailey studies how people share information in times of crisis and says that people turn  instinctively to what they use in their everyday lives. “Self-organization has always happened, even before social media, it’s just more visible now,” Dailey says. “If somebody has access to it and they think it will be useful, they’re going to use it.”

Self-organization has always happened, even before social media, it’s just more visible now.

Du Jour says that she has spent a great deal of time on social media monitoring Hurricane Harvey’s destruction. “It’s an easy way to see who is affected and how they’re affected. Social media is a great way to keep in touch with families far away without tying up the phone line with just one person. You can communicate with everyone at once.”

Kirko Bangz, a popular hip-hop artist and Houston native, has devoted his Instagram page to posting messages and addresses of people who need rescuing. And resident Antoine Joseph, who goes by @Redtheguru on social media, is one of those people who scrolled though Bangz’s feed looking for people to help.

Social media has been his only way of locating those in need of help, Joseph says, and people have been sending him direct messages on Instagram and Snapchat with their addresses.

Joseph drives a large pick-up truck that can make it through the high floodwaters, and he’s been able to use it to reach people. On Tuesday, he and his friends helped five families get safely to a shelter or hotel.

“We had floats and rope to help people and also had a buddy with a boat,” he says.

“It’s a privilege to be able to help other people and be in a position to do so. If I were stranded, I’d hope people would want to come out and help me as well,” Joseph says.

If I were stranded, I’d hope people would want to come out and help me.

Along with rescuing people, the residents of Houston have come together to feed the community as well. Edward Thompson, a chef who goes by @Sneakyeats on Instagram and @ChefSneak on Twitter, has received donations to purchase supplies with the help of social media.

Social media is an “imperative part of my operation,” Thompson says. He receives direct messages from people with locations of shelters and people who are in need of food. He estimates he’s fed 1,500-1,700 people so far and has no plans to stop anytime soon.

“With the amount of donations we received, we are looking to feed people for free for at least two months,” he says.

Thompson says that he knows what it’s like to be cold and hungry. “Food always lifts my spirits, so I want to feed as many displaced individuals that I can,” he says.

Organized Chaos

Nathan Larson and his business partner Matthew Marchetti, owners of an information technology firm, also tapped into the power of online networks to help people in the storm. Their website, Houston Harvey Rescue, is an open forum where people put in their addresses or the addresses of someone they know who needs rescuing or some other kind of help.

“Matt had been doing boat rescues all day Sunday and remarked that we could help more people if we organized it somehow,” Larson says. “So I coded the bulk of it overnight Sunday night, and by Monday morning we began to put the word out.”

The website has quickly gained traction, with nearly 8,000 people registering and signing up to be helped. Many of those people have been rescued, and their names “checked off” the list. Larson says they have been working around the clock to make sure anyone who needs help is getting it.

The website was promoted through Facebook groups and Zello.

The website was promoted through Facebook groups along with Zello, a walkie-talkie internet communications app that the volunteer group Louisiana Cajun Navy has been using to find people in need.

Larson says that they haven’t had a chance to slow down and plan for the future of the site, but they’re already thinking about how to continue to help the community. “For right now, we will begin to transition the site into a cleanup/recovery organization tool because there is a lot of work that will need to be done in the coming weeks and years,” he says.

“Rumoring”

Social media can be good, but it also leaves open the door for the spread of inaccurate information. Buzzfeed has been tracking insurance scams, false looting claims, and fake images as a way of combating misinformation that has gone viral.

Disinformation makes up a tiny percentage of the overall information flow.

The UW’s Dailey says that there are entities that will target the big news of the day and try to make money from it, but misinformation makes up a tiny percentage of the overall information flow. It’s bound to happen but doesn’t overshadow the sincere efforts made by those in Houston through social media, she says.

“Technology is not the answer or solution. It’s part of the solution,” says Dailey.

Though it is annoying, “rumoring is normal in crises,” she says. People spread rumors before there was an internet; it’s a part of community life everywhere, she says. The benefit of social media  is increasing the speed of information flow.

Watching the community come together proved to Du Jour how strong the people in her city are.

“We came together and stayed in touch. I’ve seen strangers reach out trying to unite lost family members, helping dogs tied to rails left to die. People are trying to do the right thing even at the worst moment,” Du Jour says.

The residents of Houston are going to be repairing the damage of Hurricane Harvey for years to come. The storm is ongoing, as are rescue missions, but Du Jour is hopeful for the city she calls home.

“When it’s all over I think we’ll bounce back stronger than before,” she says.