Can Social Media Help During Disasters?

Over the past 30 years, the United States has endured many natural disasters each year, including earthquakes, wildfires, storms, floods and extreme heat. The impact of these disasters is incredibly high, affecting over 800,000 people each and every year. And during the most severe circumstances, as homes are destroyed and families are separated, traditional lines of communication are typically blocked. Phone lines becomes damaged, electricity delivery is interrupted, and cell phone carriers are overwhelmed. As a result, and more and more people are turning to the Internet, and Social Media specifically, for both news and information during a crisis.

As a form of Disaster Response, Social Media is coming to the fore. According to the infograph below from Frankie Rendón, in a study by the Red Cross, 76% of respondents had used social media to determine whether or not a loved one was safe after a disaster, and an additional 25% had gone on to download a diaster-related app of some kind. 24% of respondents had actually been in a disaster and had used social media to let loved ones know they were safe.

Perhaps more stunning is that during the recent disasters that were included in these studies, a fifth of the survivors had used social media, websites or email to contact emergency responders, as opposed to calling 911, and 44% actually asked their friends and contacts online to get a hold of responders!

Not so many years ago, these people would have had no options at all.

And Americans expect that this will work. In fact, 80% of us believe that emergency respondents should and are monitoring social media and other Internet sources. Fortunately, they are. Both here in the U.S. and abroad.

During Hurricane Sandy, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) actually tweeted, "Phone lines may be congested during/after #Sandy. let loved ones know you're OK by sending a text or updating your social networks." And 23 Red Cross staffers monitored 2.5 million Sandy-related social media postings, and tagged 4,500 of those updates for officials to follow-up on, getting aid to those who needed it.

Hurricane Sandy is just one of several recent disasters mentioned in the infograph below, including 2011's deadly tornado season, Japan's tsunami on March 11, 2011, and Haiti's earthquake in 2010. The two non-U.S. disasters are included to demonstrate the global impact that social media is having on disaster response, and how people around the world unite behind a common cause whenever disaster strikes, no matter where it is.

SOCIAL MEDIA: The new face of disaster response.

What do you think about the growing role of social media in disasters? Do you think it's helpful that so much news and information is being disseminated in this way, or do you fear the inevitable inaccuracies and outright scams that crop up? Have you ever used social media during a disaster, either as a victim or as someone looking for information or ways to help?

Infograph credit to USF's Online MPA at: http://onlinempa.usfca.edu/social-media/
Red Cross monitoring image courtesy of phoenixar, Flickr.