How Social Media Helps With Disaster Response

Published On June 28, 2013 | Tech Business

We live in a social media world. Nothing illustrates that more clearly than how we respond in a disaster, and where we go to access our information when the need is dire.

According to statistics released in early 2013, 1.11 billion people on the planet are on Facebook, a billion people use YouTube, and 500 million people have a Twitter account. Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are just a handful of the social media platforms out there. With numbers like that, it’s no wonder that when a disaster strikes like the tornadoes in Oklahoma or Hurricane Sandy in 2011, people immediately turn to their favorite social media channels – whether they’re in the middle of the disaster itself or watching from the outside.

Here are just a couple of ways that social media helps both during and after a disaster.

What’s Happening in Real Time

Ten years ago, the only way you could find out what was happening in a disaster zone was from watching the news. With social media, people can post photos, videos and updates from a smartphone with a single screen tap, giving the rest of the world an update on what’s going on around them in real time. Some of the best evidence of this is how many tornado videos you can find on YouTube.

Letting People Know You’re Safe

In an emergency, downed phone lines and power outages can cause communication gaps with the outside world. You may not be able to call your loved ones or fire up your computer if you’re in the disaster zone But a simple “We’re all OK” message posted to Facebook or Twitter from a smartphone reassures your family and friends that you are indeed safe.

During the most recent tornadoes in Oklahoma, survivors were also encouraged to register at, a site run by the American Red Cross. Even if your loved ones Edith couldn’t reach you, they could run a search for your name on the website and see the latest messages you’ve posted. Streamlining communication and keeping phone lines clear for real emergencies makes a huge difference in the critical hours after the disaster.

How to Get Help

Social media helps people find the help they need at the moment they need it. During the recent tornadoes in Oklahoma, Reddit’s How to Help thread pointed survivors to critical resources like local triage centers, shelters, food banks, and places to stay after the storm. On Twitter, hashtags like #OPOK, #OKNEEDS and #OKHAVES helped people find and get help from other Twitter users. After the Joplin tornadoes in 2011, the Joplin Tornado Info Facebook page run entirely by volunteers provided key information to people in the disaster zone, including where to get clean water, updates on roads and weather, and how to get help. The page was a finalist for a 2011 Mashable Award for the Best Social Good Cause Campaign.

How We Can All Help

First responders and clean-up crews don’t necessarily want people from around the world descending on their city with piles of clothes, food and teddy bears immediately after a natural disaster. Even though their intentions are good, it would be chaotic for the disaster zone. So how can people on the outside provide help without getting in the way?

After Hurricane Sandy, one woman took to Tumblr with Sandy Sucks, to help coordinate relief and direct people on how they could personally take steps to help. Several Reddit threads provided lists of agencies and relief organizations in need of donations for survivors after the May Oklahoma tornadoes.

Above all, what organizations on the ground need after an emergency is an influx of cash so that they can purchase the supplies they most need. Raising money by text for the American Red Cross has been one of the simplest ways to donate through your cell phone service provider.

Social media continues to grow as one of the most important tools both during and after a disaster. Although social media cannot replace the effectiveness of 9-1-1 calls and the coordination of life-saving services in a crisis, it can be an informative link to keep us connected in the time of our greatest need.

— By Adrienne Ziegler

Known to her friends and colleagues as “Dree,” Adrienne Ziegler is a self-proclaimed nerd who wants to try everything once. She works for a technology company in Ann Arbor, Michigan and enjoys hiking, running, kayaking, throwing music events and artsy-crafty stuff. 



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