Torrential rains. Massive flooding. Millions in trouble. And billions in damage. When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, chaos followed.
The fourth largest city in the U.S. had never before experienced this scale of devastation. Harvey made landfall as a Category 4 Hurricane with winds of 130 mph, dropping record-setting rains on the city and surrounding areas.
The hurricane was also the first natural disaster of this scale to strike the U.S. in the social media era. One of the most iconic photos of the event originated on social media — a small circle of senior citizens sitting waist-deep in the waters of their flooded nursing home.
This memorable image captures the growing value of publicly available information—especially social media—during natural disasters.
This particular photo was, like many posts made during the hurricane, an effort to reach emergency responders when traditional channels like 911 became overwhelmed. (And it worked. All of them were rescued.)
There were many other examples, all of which illustrate the profound versatility of social media as an all-purpose emergency communications portal.
Dataminr’s corporate security clients, for example, used our real-time alerts to keep people, assets, and supply chains safe as conditions on the ground continued to worsen.
The storm threatened major transportation networks, healthcare facilities, chemical plants, jails, and other critical infrastructure. Social media posts helped first responders react faster and prioritize those areas in greatest need.
Search and rescue
As floodwaters rose, state and federal officials responded to people in the Houston area who needed assistance, many of whom used social media to ask for help. Images from these posts helped first responders understand the details of each individual’s situation.
Beyond emergency response
Emergency response agencies were not the only ones to benefit from information delivered through social media during Hurricane Harvey. Dataminr’s corporate security clients, for example, used our real-time alerts to keep people, assets, and supply chains safe as conditions on the ground continued to worsen.
To cite just one example, Dataminr for Corporate Security clients learned about the imminent closing of the Port of Houston. A closure of this nature requires ships to alter their routes, causing massive delays and trickle-down effects for shipping, rail, and trucking providers. Receiving this information sooner than major news reporting of the incident helped our clients make alternate arrangements and minimize additional expenses at a time when the entire transportation industry was scrambling to reroute cargo and establish alternate supply lines. Follow-up alerts helped these clients navigate the aftermath of the hurricane as the industry struggled to cope with flooded roadways, truck shortages, and backlogged freight.
Financial organizations benefited from real-time alerts when the hurricane forced the closure of Motiva, the largest oil refinery in the U.S. Dataminr for Finance clients received early notice of this event, giving them extra time to take action. This was important for these firms as speculation about the closure caused a spike in gas prices when the news was finally confirmed.
For newsrooms, social media is the “tip line” of the 21st century. Millions of people use these platforms to report what they see and post photos from the scene. Eyewitness accounts enable journalists to get a jump on fast-moving stories and educate the public more quickly in times of crisis. During the hurricane, newsrooms relied on social media alerts to perform their jobs more effectively.
Learning about citizens rescuing each other from flooded areas, for example, helped news organizations understand where evacuations were most needed and where to find dramatic stories of individuals going the extra mile to help each other.
In all of these examples, one of the biggest challenges social media poses for decision-makers is its volume. Manually checking social media feeds during an already chaotic and fastmoving event is not likely to produce actionable information.
New technology offers a better way to do this, with solutions like Dataminr giving all kinds of organizations a more effective way to quickly identify the most relevant information and receive it automatically.
Too often, social media platforms are seen as generalized indicators of sentiment or trending topics. Disasters like Hurricane Harvey clearly demonstrate they have much more to offer. With technology that can identify critical breaking information, social media content can save time, money, resources, and even lives. (Would the response to Hurricane Katrina have been different in the social media era?) Across industries, decision-makers who must react to natural disasters would be well served to explore how to use social media as a strategic tool for real-time response.