» So­cial me­dia proves life­saver, mo­bi­lizer in storm.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Omar L. Gal­laga ogal­laga@statesman.com Con­tact Omar L. Gal­laga at 512-445-3672. Twit­ter: @omarg

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 smart­phones.

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 such so­cial me­dia ser­vices as Face­book, Twit­ter or what­ever they had at their dis­posal.

It 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 cre­ated some much-needed laughs (a lone dog hero­ically car­ry­ing a bag of dog 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, of­fer­ing real-time video ma­jor events and open­ing the door for fundrais­ing and de­bate on how re­lief ef­forts should be co­or­di­nated.

Univer­sity of Texas com­mu­ni­ca­tions stud­ies as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor Keri Stephens said one of the most in­ter­est­ing as­pects of the so­cial me­dia re­sponse to 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 com­mu­ni­ca­tion 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 of the La Vita Bella fa­cil­ity in Dick­in­son, which was orig­i­nally tweeted Sun­day, 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 it.

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 wasn’t un­usual to see video and live up­dates from 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 North Texas’ South Bend dur­ing Bra­zos River flood­ing. “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.”

In ad­di­tion to res­cue ef­forts, so­cial me­dia was also a way for oth­ers to mo­bi­lize lo­cal do­na­tion ef­forts and to help guide vol­un­teers and emer­gency per­son­nel to where they might be needed.

Stephens said it’s nat­u­ral to feel help­less in the face of im­ages of dev­as­ta­tion. “We still feel that angst and that de­sire to help. When you don’t have re­sources, so­cial 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 on 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 hur­ri­cane’s tragedies and lend a hand, the on­line net­works were also places where politi­cized anger, petty de­bate, scams and abuse went on, largely unchecked.

Among the top­ics that cre­ated heat as the hur­ri­cane raged were whether evan­ge­list 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.

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


Charles Prothro cleans up a prop­erty in Aransas County on Mon­day after Hur­ri­cane Har­vey hit the area. Prothro is part of the “Big Truck Crew,” a group of vol­un­teers — all with big trucks – that was or­ga­nized through so­cial me­dia.

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