Why Aren’t More People Using Social Media During Natural Disasters?

Opinion: It’s a simple tool that could help keep you safe when it matters most

The U.S. experienced 16 major natural disasters last year
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From hurricanes to wildfires, natural disasters seem to be on the rise. But in today’s tech-savvy world, there are many tools available to help people prepare for such events.

Social media, with its instant ability to connect, is one of the most powerful ways to stay in touch—whether it’s to reach out and let loved ones know you’re safe, or to alert authorities to your whereabouts in an emergency.

Recently, an Esurance survey found that only 17 percent of respondents felt personally prepared for a natural disaster. But nearly two-thirds of Americans already own smartphones that can help them stay connected to social media in the event of an emergency.

Let’s take a look at how social media could be used more widely as a critical tool during natural disasters.

Having a Facebook account could enable quicker rescue

Facebook has recognized a pattern: When disasters strike, people either evacuate or hunker down. But in both cases, they’ll likely have their phones. So, in June 2017, Facebook announced the launch of Disaster Maps. This feature provides aid workers with real-time data visualizations (through heat maps) of users’ actions as disaster unfolds. Workers can then decide how to best proceed and reach people as fast as possible.

So far, Disaster Maps have been executed across the world during disasters such as a volcano eruption in Bali; hurricanes Harvey, Maria and Irma; and the California wildfires. The best part? You only need a Facebook account and your location settings turned on. Facebook simply tracks your movement—it doesn’t look at your identity or profile.

Geo-tagged photos could help aid workers focus their efforts

When Hurricane Sandy ripped through the East Coast, more than 10,000 Instagram images were uploaded per second with #sandy. Many photos had geo-tagged locations attached to them, which proved invaluable to the American Red Cross and other agencies tasked with deciding where to deploy assistance. It was essentially a real-time data pipeline of victims needing help.

Social media is effective for both the public and the disaster relief agencies. People aren’t flooding phone lines, getting frustrated by busy signals and lack of response. Plus, emergency response crews are able to send out messages of comfort and support in an uncertain time.

For instance, during Sandy, Red Cross volunteers reviewed 2.5 million posts and used their own personal social accounts to respond to the public on behalf of the agency.

A single tweet could capture America’s attention

As Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston, an alarming photo began circulating on Twitter. It showed several elderly women in a nursing home, sitting in waist-deep water, waiting to be rescued. The owner of the nursing home, Trudy Lampson, posted the photo in an effort to reach out for help.

Originally, the nursing home was instructed to not to evacuate. But as water started flowing in, Lampson knew she had to do something, quick. She sent the photo to her daughter, who tweeted it out. The image spread like wildfire across the internet. Shortly after, the National Guard showed up to rescue around 25 residents. This is just one example of how powerful social media can be when disaster strikes.

Tips for using social media during a natural disaster

Social media is an essential form of communication before, during and after catastrophes. Consider these tips to ensure that you’re social-media-ready when you need to be:

  • Invest in a smartphone: There’s a good chance you already have one, but if you don’t, get one. Make sure you have a solid data plan, too. If the power goes out, you’ll lose any landline or WiFi connection.
  • Follow important accounts: If you know a major storm or event is headed your way, follow state, local and federal agencies such as FEMA, your local fire and police departments and utility companies. Monitor these accounts throughout an emergency to get the latest information and evacuation instructions.
  • Do a dry run and have a plan: Make sure you know how to check in on Facebook’s Safety Check. Make sure you’re comfortable posting on social media, and learn how to tag different agencies if you need immediate help.
  • Reach out on all channels: If a storm hits, it’s important to listen to local authorities and stay safe, but don’t be afraid to reach out. Whether it’s letting friends and family know you’re safe or getting the help you need, use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and every other channel at your disposal to get your message out in the world. You might reach a different audience on various platforms.
  • Use hashtags and post pictures: Disaster relief agencies may follow activity through hashtags (as mentioned previously with Hurricane #sandy). Use the appropriate hashtag to have a better chance of getting your message noticed. Photos can also give authorities a clear idea of your situation.
  • Keep an eye on important accounts: Monitor the Red Cross and your local authorities for updates, including new information or evacuation instructions.

The U.S. experienced 16 major natural disasters last year—an increase of over 33 percent from the previous year—and Mother Nature shows no signs of slowing down soon. But social media could be one of the most useful ways to stay connected before, during and after a disaster. It’s a simple tool that could help keep you safe when it matters most.

Eric Brandt is chief customer advocate at insurance firm Esurance.