With four foot and rising flood waters, a family in Houston, Texas abandoned his possessions and rushed to his roof during Hurricane Harvey to sit with his pets and wait for help. Unable to reach first responders via 911 and with no one visible nearby, they used their cellphones to send out a call for help through a social media app called Nextdoor.
Within an hour, a neighbor arrived in an empty canoe large enough to ferry the family and their pets to safety. Through a collaboration with Nextdoor, we learned of this and hundreds of similar rescues on Harvey’s path.
This story illustrates the power of systems like The next door, an application designed to facilitate communication between neighbors. Houston survivors are using social media platforms such as Facebook, Nextdoor and Twitter to connect with rescuers, organize food and medical supplies and find housing for people.
These stories support our findings that social connections can save lives during disasters. They demonstrate why social media platforms should feature prominently in our preparations and early disaster damage assessments.
When first responders are out of reach
Everyone knows they should have batteries and three days worth of water and food on hand when extreme weather events occur. But in our view, friends and social media platforms reachable by phone are just as important, as they could be lifesaving.
Many people assume that standard emergency services — such as the 911 system, police, fire department, and FEMA — will save them from disasters. While these are essential services in normal times, they can be literally and figuratively overwhelmed during major hurricanes and floods, as we saw in Houston during Harvey. Firefighters and police cannot answer all phone calls. In some cases, emergency call response centers have closed or become inaccessible due to damaged communication systems.
In past disasters around the world, our research has shown that the real first responders immediately after have often been neighbours, family members and friends. In such conditions, social connections – connections with our friends, family, neighbors and acquaintances – can save our lives, lessen the damage from storms like Irma and Harvey, and speed recovery.
People to lean on
We know from studies of many disasters around the world that closer ties help vulnerable people through what can be life-threatening conditions. Neighbors can be a first line of defense, as we saw in Houston when neighbors formed a human chain to block floodwaters while others guided a woman in labor to the bed of a truck. dumpster (the only vehicle available) and took her to a local hospital. .
While we are constantly bombarded with information from television, radio and newspapers – especially when a major storm approaches – we tend to act on information we trust. The governor of Florida has urged residents in Irma’s path to evacuate, but for many Floridians, hearing the same message from relatives or friends may be what triggers action.
After disasters end and recovery begins, social connections can help keep us anchored to a home or business. Victims may face long waits for insurance payments, if they are lucky enough to have insurance, or have to make decisions about restoring homes and businesses in disaster areas. They also face the psychological challenge of returning to places associated with pain and loss. Having a circle of friends and neighbors can make them more likely to return and lessen some of the trauma they have gone through.
Apps prove their worth
Social media is a great resource for harnessing social networks and putting them to work during and after disasters. Both Facebook and Nextdoor have proven their worth in recent disasters. A recent study found that following the 2014 Napa Valley earthquake, online engagement and use of social media platforms for good occurred in communities with higher levels of social cohesion. students. We believe that people who are socially active in the field – volunteering, helping neighbors, donating blood – are also active through social media.
In Houston, members used Nextdoor to share prayers and information about road closures, seek medical attention and protect homes from looting. Local agencies, including Harris County and Houston Emergency Management Offices, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and the Houston Police Department, have used Nextdoor to post mandatory evacuation orders, links to flood maps, lists of open shelters, instructions on connecting with first responders for rescues if needed, and calls for volunteers with boats to help those stranded.
Now Florida residents are using Nextdoor to encourage people to reach out to neighbors, especially the elderly and infirm, to discuss evacuation plans and find stores that still have supplies. Nearly 50 agencies have used Nextdoor to share information about preparing for supply shortages, rain, storm surges and high winds.
On September 6, Facebook activated its safety check feature for Hurricane Irma, allowing members in its path to indicate if they need assistance and allowing users to check the status of their friends and their relatives. To use Safety Check, start here.
If you are in the path of a hurricane, you should of course move to higher ground, bring batteries, and shelter in a safe place with food and water. But don’t forget your phone and consider using Nextdoor and Facebook during the storm and recovery. Even if you can’t see them, you are surrounded by a community that cares about you.