Do 'Pray for...' mes­sages make dis­as­ter re­lief harder?

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) - - INTERNATIONAL - By Gareth Evans

More than 1,000 peo­ple asked Ma­gan Flores for help dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Har­vey, de­spite the fact she had no for­mal train­ing or of­fi­cial role in the emer­gency re­sponse. "I re­mem­ber peo­ple just call­ing in pure panic, and me, try­ing to hold it to­gether for them, try­ing to tell them to stay calm," she said.

Ma­gan was in Dal­las, which is over 320km away from Hous­ton where the flood­ing was most se­vere. But when she saw peo­ple needed help she posted her de­tails on so­cial me­dia and of­fered to put peo­ple in touch with res­cuers on the ground. "Peo­ple couldn't post their in­for­ma­tion to get res­cued. So I hopped on and of­fered them to text me the info," she says. Ma­gan used Face­book, and a walkie-talkie app called Zello, to send the lo­ca­tions of peo­ple who needed to be res­cued to vol­un­teer res­cuers who were pa­trolling Hous­ton by boat.

Be­fore long she was re­ceiv­ing roughly 10 calls a minute from peo­ple who could not get through to the emer­gency ser­vices. "You could hear the wa­ter rush­ing, ba­bies in the back­ground cry­ing, and the pure sound of fear in their voices," she said. But her work was made more dif­fi­cult by the mas­sive amount of ac­tiv­ity on so­cial me­dia dur­ing the storm.

"The Face­book page be­came an is­sue when non- es­sen­tial posts were clog­ging it up. As much as we would've liked to have an­swered every post that came through, it was im­pos­si­ble," she says. "At one point, in the mid­dle of Har­vey, we had is­sues ac­cess­ing the page in gen­eral and had to turn it off so that we were able to re­view the posts and pin lo­ca­tions."

So does the huge surge in non- es­sen­tial posts dur­ing these dis­as­ters cause more harm than good?

Pa­tric Spence, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Ni­chol­son School of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion at the Univer­sity of Cen­tral Florida, be­lieves so. "At one point dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Sandy, there were over 12.5 tweets per sec­ond sent us­ing the hash­tags pro­moted by the of­fi­cial re­sponse agen­cies. Find­ing use­ful in­for­ma­tion within the in­for­ma­tion glut of count­less peo­ple com­mu­ni­cat­ing on the sub­ject can be dif­fi­cult," he said.

The mas­sive num­ber of peo­ple post­ing dur­ing a dis­as­ter - of­ten us­ing the same ded­i­cated hash­tag - can make it more dif­fi­cult to find im­por­tant in­for­ma­tion that can ul­ti­mately save lives. But Pro­fes­sor Spence warns that peo­ple should first think whether or not their post will be help­ful be­fore hit­ting pub­lish.

When a dis­as­ter hap­pens, ded­i­cated hash­tags usu­ally ap­pear, which are pro­moted by the au­thor­i­ties. These make it eas­ier to keep up to date with the lat­est de­vel­op­ments re­gard­ing flood­ing, power out­ages and road clo­sures, and where peo­ple may need to be res­cued.

Us­ing these ded­i­cated hash­tags to post non-es­sen­tial in­for­ma­tion and plat­i­tudes can drown out the up­dates that mat­ter. For ex­am­ple, dur­ing most nat­u­ral dis­as­ters and ter­ror­ist at­tacks, a #Pray­for hash­tag will be­come pop­u­lar - take # Pray­forBarcelona. Tweets like these of­ten con­tain key search terms, but of­fer very lit­tle to those in need. It means those look­ing for help or up­dates have to trawl through posts that of­fer lit­tle use­ful in­for­ma­tion. This leads to frus­tra­tion from peo­ple who are re­ly­ing on so­cial me­dia to keep up to date with the lat­est de­vel­op­ments.

Given all of this, how can you know if your up­date is es­sen­tial? Kevin Sur, an in­struc­tor at the Na­tional Dis­as­ter Pre­pared­ness Train­ing Cen­ter at the Ohio Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency, has some sug­ges­tions. "Com­plaints about the weather and non-trained weather forecast in­for­ma­tion is non-es­sen­tial. Ul­ti­mately, we can­not con­trol Mother Na­ture," he said. "For Hur­ri­cane Har­vey, we had such a high in­un­da­tion of the gen­eral pub­lic post­ing vague in­for­ma­tion to var­i­ous plat­forms, that call cen­tres had a hard time ac­cru­ing good in­for­ma­tion to dis­patch crews for res­cue," he added.

This swell of unim­por­tant posts dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Har­vey led some emer­gency ser­vices to dis­cour­age peo­ple from post­ing re­quests for help on so­cial me­dia. The US Coast Guard made their po­si­tion clear, ask­ing peo­ple to call emer­gency num­bers in­stead.

So what kind of things should peo­ple be shar­ing?

"Life safety in­for­ma­tion. With­out a doubt, life safety in­for­ma­tion," said Kevin Sur. He sug­gested one ex­am­ple of a safe up­date: "Maybe some­thing like 'My neigh­bor­hood of XXX is flooded, but we are safe, in­clud­ing our dogs at the lo­cal Red Cross shel­ter'." This post is spe­cific and lets friends and rel­a­tives know you are safe with­out giv­ing any "non-es­sen­tial" in­for­ma­tion, which could make it dif­fi­cult for au­thor­i­ties to de­ter­mine their pri­or­i­ties.

Kevin Sur said that, as well as only post­ing es­sen­tial in­for­ma­tion, it is also im­por­tant to think about what is safe to share. Fol­low­ing the re­cent hur­ri­canes, there were re­ports of loot­ing in Hous­ton, Florida, and across the Caribbean. Un­safe so­cial me­dia use dur­ing a dis­as­ter can play into the hands of these crim­i­nals - so users should be ex­tra care­ful. "I would use com­mon sense and not post home ad­dresses. Any kind of per­sonal in­for­ma­tion should be shared on se­cured com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nels," he said. He had three, more gen­eral, tips for us­ing so­cial me­dia dur­ing a dis­as­ter: "Fol­low trusted sources. Govern­ment agen­cies and NGOs that can pro­vide re­li­able in­for­ma­tion. Also, fol­low the lo­cal weather ser­vice. Ul­ti­mately, the weather dic­tates all of our ac­tions in­clud­ing our res­cue op­er­a­tions." The point, he said, that is most im­por­tant is also the most ob­vi­ous. "Use so­cial me­dia to no­tify your friends and fam­ily that you are okay. Use var­i­ous plat­forms, be­cause they may not all be on the same one. En­gage with your fam­ily and ask if they are okay and what they need."

For those who do need help, so­cial me­dia re­mains a place where it can be found. De­spite the huge num­ber of non- es­sen­tial posts, Face­book groups still of­fered sup­port and ad­vice through­out the re­cent storms. As Ma­gan Flores ex­plains: "When I saw there was a need for help, be­ing so far away, it was all that I could do. It was ei­ther take ac­tion, or cry."

(Courtesy BBC)

Vol­un­teers used so­cial me­dia to co­or­di­nate res­cue ef­forts dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Har­vey

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