Saving Lives: One Tweet at a Time

For most in IS6621, social media is the focus of business and consumer analysis and the ability to leverage its use to create a unique story for our brands.  Social media has great potential within all of our business aspirations. Brand creation and recognition can be driven from an Iphone. For others, social media is just a source of pug videos and food pictures (and there is nothing wrong with this).  But, did you know about the potential for social media to save lives? Insert Hurricane Harvey and the creative minds of Houston, TX.

Hurricane Harvey was a Category 4 hurricane beginning on August 17, 2017 and raging till September 2, 2017.  Hurricane Harvey was primarily affecting the Gulf of Mexico area, centering a record amount of rainfall and flooding on the Houston area.  After the three week stretch, Hurricane Harvey had produced around $125 billion in damages and sadly 107 confirmed deaths. This tied Hurricane Katrina for the most costliest natural disasters in US history.  Yet, the deaths from Hurricane Harvey were just 10% of the total from Hurricane Katrina. Now, this was mostly from better aid responses and warning and evacuation procedures, but social media had a small impact in the lowered death total.  Social media played a small, but vital role in the immediate emergency response to Hurricane Harvey. This was done in multiple avenues: Rescue, volunteering, and information. The main focus of this blog will be the rescue aspect.


Starting with the largest and greatest impact, social media was used for the direct rescue of multiple Houston residents.  At first, government agencies recommended the use of dialing 9-1-1 in the event of an emergency. Hurricane Harvey proved to overwhelm the city of Houston with flood water, creating dangerous situations for many residents as their houses became flooded.  With many residents of Houston requiring evacuation, 9-1-1 lines became overwhelmed by the influx of emergency calls. Many residents became stranded on their roofs with no contact with emergency agencies. This is when clever residents turned to twitter in a last ditch effort for rescue.  Individuals began to tweet out their home addresses and the amount of individuals needing rescue (Seen by these examples:)

Emergency officials began turning their attention to social media as #SOSHarvey and #HelpHouston began to be a trending theme creating a movement of people needing help.  A twitter account, @HarveyRescue, began taking submissions from individuals and relaying these messages to the local authorities. With exact locations and case details submitted, authorities were able to rescue individuals who had been stranded.  Further, rescue efforts were reaching people whose normal mode of communication had failed.

This was quite revolutionary event in the use of social media.  For the first time, social media was being used to relay individual emergency cases.  In my opinion, this is a major step in the trust of social media by the public. Individuals were actually putting their personal addresses on their public social media accounts.  This is top on the list of things not to do when utilizing social media. Yet, in times of need people believed in the power of social media being used for good. The impact of this event is a little more hazy.

The questions that rise from this event are interesting.  First, is social media an actual viable way of communicating emergencies.  I would argue “no” due to the diversity of social media posts. In contrast to a normal 9-1-1 call line, social media has an array of communication.  On one hand a post could be about a cute video of pugs and on another an emergency event. Therefore, social media will not be phasing out the use of 9-1-1 anytime soon.

The second and more important question is will this emergency tweeting and social media use become more prevalent in the future.  I believe the answer to this is “yes”. Hurricane Harvey showed the success of using social media when the normal routes of 9-1-1 fails.  I believe with better infrastructure around the submission of emergency cases and closer monitoring, social media will play a large role in rescue efforts of future disasters.  Emergency agencies should set up a direct messaging avenue for people in need when their phone calls fail due to the high demand. Not only would this allow for faster responses and lowered 9-1-1 volume, but this has the great potential to lower preventable deaths with greater communication.   

All in all, Hurricane Harvey was another tragic disaster in our country’s history. Yet, the positive outcome was the good that can come from social media. Many times the good produced by social media is diminished and hidden by repeated misuse and selfish acts. Yet, in Houston during August 2017, social media showed that there is still a glimmer of good in its use.


  1. jlrose03 · ·

    Great dive into the use of social media. I think that social media has become so relevant in every aspect of our lives and continues to play a premium role in life-changing scenarios. The example you used with the hurricane is a good use-case, where people leverage social media positively to ask for help. The answer to both questions you posed is yes. Social media is not going anywhere as new technology and platforms continue to emerge from this social revolution. There is no turning back. Would it be valuable for emergency agencies to create a separate communications channel? Yes. Are consumers still going to spread important requests and emergencies regardless? Yes. Only time will tell, but if there isn’t a way to organize communication content by relevancy, that is the greater threat.

  2. First, I want to say thank you for highlighting one of the major ways that social media can be used for good. I feel like more often than not, we find ourselves talking about the negatives associated with social media use when there are many good uses that exist out there. Social media plays a major role in each and every one of our lives on a daily basis and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. That being said, I believe it will continue to play a role in major emergency situations and will continue to be a helpful tool, especially in the event the 911 lines are overloaded. The use of specific hashtags like #SOSHarvey and #HelpHouston that you mentioned in your post is something that I feel people will continue to utilize when disaster strikes in order to help separate those tweets and other social media posts from the rest.

  3. Jaclin Murphy · ·

    What an interesting post! I think we all love to see stories like this, where social media was used for good, instead of to steal our data, etc. I think social media could be a huge resource in relaying information quickly in times of natural disasters or emergency. The use of it instead of 911 calls is quick thinking by that person. It’s very easy and fast to send a message with your exact location, so yes maybe if there was some sort of digital 911 set up, which could direct the messages where they need to go. At the very least, text/twitter is an efficient way to tell people what they need to know. This reminds me of getting weather and other text alerts from BC. Our phones connect us to the world at the click of a button, we might as well use it to our advantage.

  4. This is a great facet of social media. The twitter hashtags and accounts are similarly on Facebook. Earlier this year in California, there was a huge fire that started in the middle of the night and burned for days. Because it began at night, the evacuations were inefficient. The missing persons list was initially massive white board with people’s names on it, so the social media intervention was extremely influential. Good Morning America did a segment on the fires titled “The Power of Social Media” and how Celebs were helping find people that were lost in wildfires. Actor James Woods actually connected a niece and her great uncle Al. His hashtag, #SoCalFiresJamesWoods, received over 100,000 retweets.

  5. csaitta4 · ·

    This is one of the positive uses of social media that helps show us just how important this digital connection is. It reminds me of Facebook’s feature where you can mark yourself “safe” during an emergency or natural disaster. Not only does this help you to alert friends and family that you are in fact okay, but it could also trigger Facebook to ask more questions or perhaps followup if you don’t mark yourself “safe” incase you really are hurt and no one knows. I think it’s a really notable statistic that you found that Hurricane Harvey only amassed 10% of the deaths that Katrina did and I definitely agree that social media and our ease of connection certainly was a factor in this. Police stations, EMC stations, fire stations, etc. should make sure that they both have operating twitter or facebook profiles and that someone is staffed to monitor these pages for when emergencies happen and social media is the preferred (or only) way to contact emergency personnel.

  6. licarima · ·

    It is refreshing, as many others have stated, to hear a positive use of social media as opposed to the next innovate break through that is going digitize our lives. I have hear a lot about the use of twitter and the response on both Hurricane Katrina and Harvey. I believe that over the years this has gain a lot more attention from companies like Facebook with their marked safe button during disasters. I come from a family of first responders many police and fire and their departments have found valuable use in Twitter. This has allowed them to communicate with public in a moment’s notice, and it has also helped police monitor situations in the community that could pose a bigger threat, I have seen great value in the use of Twitter for fire in situations where more backup is need right away, and has even sped up response time. While I agree the internet is not the correct place to publicize your address in situations such as these tools such as social media can help.

  7. I would have never thought to use social media during any kind of emergency let alone a serious natural disaster like Hurricane Harvey. While it is great to see social media have such a positive impact, I wonder whether or not it is a reliable channel to relay this type of information, especially in natural disasters. Cell towers and data services have a high likelihood of being damaged in these storms meaning the messages may never reach first responders in time. However, if 911 lines are full, this is a great second option.

  8. shannonbenoit5 · ·

    As several people have already said, I loved hearing something positive about social media. Because it just takes one misuse to ruin a good thing, we find ourselves talking a lot about the downfalls and the risks of social media (and for good reason, as they are very real), that we sometimes forget the real benefits, in this case even life-saving benefits, that can come from being so digitally connected. I definitely agree that it would be better to have a separate 911 messaging platform (and am surprised that this isn’t already in place) so emergency messages aren’t caught in between a pug picture and a food tutorial. I think you’re right in that social media shouldn’t become the primary way of communicating emergencies, but it’s nice to know that it can work in some emergency situations.

  9. debhan10 · ·

    This post truly highlights one of the great things about social media. It holds so much power and potential, and I can only hope that we’ll continue to reap these benefits in the future. This reminds me of an article I read about how people are more trusting of the apps on their phones to share their locations with, than they are of anything else. 911 call centers still experience difficulties with being able to accurately locate callers in a quick and efficient manner, whereas apps on our phones are able to do so instantaneously. I think it’s an intriguing point.

  10. kgcorrigan · ·

    To reiterate what many others have commented, it’s so nice to read about another application of social media being used for good! I agree that I don’t see this type of social media use taking over the traditional 911 call, but it is a great backup/additional option in case phone lines are full or not able to be used. It seems like one of the biggest hurdles to overcome in emergency communication is being able to filter through messages quickly enough to separate those that are related to a current emergency vs. those that are unrelated (especially if the person doesn’t have time/doesn’t think to tag an emergency responder or use a hashtag). I think there is room to grow in this area, and your idea for direct messaging would be a great start.

  11. huang91j · ·

    That is an amazing use of social media! I’m so glad that leveraging it helped save lives and it’s crazy to think how much higher the death toll could’ve been if it weren’t for social media. This makes me think of local police departments posting on Twitter and Facebook as well to help with finding suspects and seeking more information. As you probably know with the two recent kidnapping of women around the Boston club and bar scene, many people have turned to social media to help locate the women. Unfortunately for the latest case, the woman couldn’t be saved but in most instances, when people are lost social media has been one of the best ways to spread awareness online. Of course local police departments can have someone designated to monitor messages across different platforms, but it still will not be as efficient as someone calling in 9-1-1 since the operator ultimately determines the urgency of the situation and dispatches the appropriate services. It is a very interesting concept where we now try to leverage social media in all aspects of our daily lives.

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