Social Media and Disasters: Just as Important for Survival as Food/Shelter

Facebook takes over the world.

Facebook takes over the world.

Social media continues to change our lives in myriad unexpected ways. Survival may not be the first application that comes to mind when you think of Twitter or Facebook, but the truth is that these and other social media outlets can make a big difference in disasters. For instance, during Japan’s 2011 nuclear disaster, 20,000 tweets were sent per second. Likewise, in its 2013 National Preparedness Report, FEMA reported that “users sent more than 20 million Sandy-related Twitter posts, or “tweets,” despite the loss of cell phone service during the peak of the storm.“ Social media sites help bridge communication gaps when cell phone service isn’t available. And these services are shifting disaster management from a one-way affair, with officials broadcasting announcements, to a conversation between disaster survivors, emergency agencies, and people all over the country.

Social Media Uses During Disasters

1. Communicate with Loved Ones.

More than 40 million Americans use at least one form of social media several times per day. So it’s only natural that people should post up-to-the-minute updates during a disaster, to keep friends and family apprised of their wellbeing. For instance, during the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, students posted Facebook updates during the shooting. Some social media resources are augmenting this social media strength. As an example, Google developed a Person Finder application to help people find their loved ones following the Boston marathon bombings.

2. Inform Management What’s Happening on the Ground.

Hashtags emerge in minutes following a disaster, as people use social media to communicate local needs with officials. Crowd-sourcing platforms can enhance crisis management, as was the case after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti. There, a crowd-sourcing program called Ushahidi connected health care providers to health supply providers. And earthquake victims used Facebook to call for help while they were trapped under rubble. Another example: following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, local residents tweeted pictures of oil-covered birds to a volunteer organization called Louisiana Bucket Brigade. Volunteers with the organization compiled tweet locations to establish priority cleanup areas.

3. Cultivate Calm by Keeping the Populace Informed and Connected.

Eighty percent of decision-making is done according to how we feel, not how we think, according to neuroscientists. In the face of a disaster, emotions run wild, exacerbating an already challenging situation. Social media can help people connect with survivors, utilities and government in a positive tone, diminishing the fear that pervades disaster scenarios.
Following Hurricane Sandy, New Jersey’s biggest utility company used Twitter to announce the location of their tent shelters and generators. And social media helps connect survivors to people all over the country; the Pew Research Center says that 25% of Americans looked to social media outlets for information following Boston Marathon bombings. Over 140,000 people retweeted the Boston Police Department’s post, “CAPTURED!!!” once the manhunt was over.

So, as you stock your Bug Out Bag with multi-tools, flashlights, and non-perishable food and water, don’t forget to tuck in a car cell phone charger. That way you can access social media even if power is not available. Having access to Twitter, Facebook, and other social media outlets will help you gather resources and feel calm following an emergency.

[photo credit: ideagirlmedia via CC License]

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