The Power of Social Media in a Natural Disaster

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With Harvey and Irma in the rear-view mirror, let’s take a look at how our wired world dealt with the back-to-back record-breaking disasters. For organizations and citizens alike, Social Media became vital during trying times. 

Communicating with the Public

For two weeks, government agencies at all levels utilized Social Media as a way to quickly communicate the public shelter locations, changing weather conditions and information on relief efforts. It’s rare to get chills from a tweet, but when the below message popped up on my feed during Hurricane Harvey, the scope of the damage felt real for the first time.

I don’t reside in Brazoria County, nor do I follow anyone who does. But that tweet was retweeted to 38 million feeds by President Donald Trump. A broken levee in Brazoria County was one of many worst-case scenarios for Hurricane Harvey, but in a matter of minutes the county message was broadcast to one of the largest audiences possible.

For Hurricane Irma, the state of Florida did its best to get out in front of the coming storm. Florida’s Tourism office sent out targeted Facebook messages to 281,000 users in the days leading up to the storm, warning potential visitors to take precaution. This effort complimented Florida Governor Rick Scott’s partnership with Google Maps to make sure that all road closures were as up-to-date as possible.

It’s comforting to see local officials adjust their disaster plans to cater to the new smartphone world.

Live Updates from Danger

It’s not likely that major media will ever stop putting reporters in the middle of any natural disaster to provide up-to-the-minute updates, but for Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, some local reporters became national correspondents.

Harrowing images captured by a local Tampa Bay Reporter named Josh Benson have been retweeted more than 11,000 times despite his following of just 3,600.

Similarly, Paul Adams of the BBC tweeted out a clip sent to him from some colleagues that was retweeted over 15,000 times, again eclipsing his following of 11,000.

The New York Times eventually featured both tweets in a social media roundup, proving that local reporting can reach further than the name implies.

Inspiring Characters Born out of Disaster

More than using it to alert the public or to share harrowing sights, social media was used to inspire during the recent devastating storms.

For Hurricane Harvey, a movement was born out of Houston Texan’s star JJ Watt’s goal of raising funds for recovery. The initial benchmark was set at $200,000 in donations.

It wasn’t long before the campaign went viral. Local businesses and celebrities quickly jumped on board, cruising past the initial goal. The campaign would eventually close with donations from the NFL, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Walmart, Drake and Jimmy Fallon. In total, $32 million was raised for the recovery effort in Houston.

Irma had its fair share of heroes as well. Three in particular became some of the most viral feel-good stories of the storm.

First, Disney’s Frozen co-stars Josh Gad and Kristen Bell reunited in the best way.

Then, two chainsaw wielding Floridians blew up on social media thanks to some unique attire.

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During a natural disaster, Social Media changes focus. It doesn’t become a tool of self-promotion and marketing, but rather one of the best communication platforms available. The most viral of messaging can come from anyone caught in the action, or anyone willing to take time to help their community. Lessons learned to take with us into whatever comes next.

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