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How Hurricane Harvey Changed Social Media Disaster Relief

Social media managers had to handle unprecedented social media activity during the storm.

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Photo Illustration by Jenn Hair; sandbags: Steve Gonzales/Houston Chronicle via AP; bottled water: Eric Gay/AP; car: Charlie Riedel/AP

For millions of Texans—and people around the world—Hurricane Harvey was the first natural disaster that they watched unfold almost in real time on social media. Those directly affected by the storm reached out for rescue and updates on Twitter and Facebook. Those far away turned to the platforms to coordinate aid and spread information (and disinformation). The social media use was so prevalent that it even launched a research project at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Hurricane Harvey is the first disaster where social media calls for help appear to have supplanted the overloaded 911 call systems,” Keri Stephens, an associate professor in UT’s Department of Communication Studies and the project’s principal investigator, said in a release. “But this form of help-seeking behavior on public social media is relatively new. This project will capture the voices of hurricane victims and emergency response workers to help save lives in the future.”

Beyond survivors and those watching from afar, navigating social media activity around Hurricane Harvey also fell to a group of people tasked with being the accessible voice of organizations: social media managers. While organizations have regular strategies in place for managing the day-to-day sharing of information from social media outlets, remaining active, informative, and accurate during a natural disaster requires a concentrated effort, especially for those addressing storm-related issues while navigating its effects themselves. Here’s how social media managers from the National Weather Service, Brazoria County, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, and Tyler County Emergency Management weathered Hurricane Harvey online.


Texas Monthly: What kind of training or experience do you have with managing social media?

Sharon Trower (Public Information Officer for Brazoria County): We have had some training. I’m a member of the regional PIO network in the Houston area—we’ve had some training in social media and of course we have our own personal accounts as well.

Ken Jobe (Emergency Management for Tyler County): No training. Other than being on Facebook myself, no.

Parisa Safarzadeh (Resident Digital Media Manager for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office): When I was at the sheriff’s office, Harris County Office of Emergency Management sent somebody there to train with us, so we understand the county’s expectations. We understand our expectations and our priorities and we share that information. In addition to that, I personally have been to a few different emergency management classes and there are instructors that come from everywhere, not just law enforcement but also from the Emergency Management Agency, a federal agency. Again, we train there, but we also have the opportunity to share information. That for me has been extremely instrumental in emergency management. 

Cory Pieper (National Weather Service’s Social Media and Digital Strategy Leader): For the seven years or so before I transitioned to this position, I worked for our Southern Region Headquarters and played a role as either the chair or co-chair of emerging technology for National Weather Service. We were a team that helped to instigate and deploy social media throughout our agency, for all of our forecast officers at forecast centers and national centers, and of course our national accounts as well. So, I’ve been doing that for a number of years in cooperation with a number of people across the agency.

In social media stuff, as is the case for a lot of the folks, it’s been a lot of on-the-job training. Most of the folks that we have at the helm of our social media accounts across the agency are trained meteorologists, and we use that to try to leverage social media to communicate what we would normally communicate using our official products and services. Having a meteorological background is pretty important. I don’t really have any formal training, as far as social media goes.

TM: What does your team look like and how does it operate?

Safarzadeh: My day-to-day consists of sort of operating and maintaining our social media accounts. So, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and all of them. And, by the way, all of those are @HCSOTexas. You are consistently working. And it’s not just me. There’s a great team that is about six of us and we all contribute and maintain the accounts. But if it’s not images, it’s not press conferences, if it’s not crisis communications, then it’s a community outreach about public education and information. And then, certainly during events like we saw in Harvey, you just kind of go full gear and put out as much communication as possible. It’s just one-way communication, but you put as much as you can out for the public in the digital sphere.

Pieper: It depends on what level we’re talking about. With the national accounts, those are run from our communications office. And so, we do have trained communicators as a part of our team in the communications office in the National Weather Service. There are a number of us—five to six—actively involved on a day-to-day basis talking strategy, working at infographics, and actually doing the posts themselves. Out in the field, at each individual office—there are 120 forecast offices—it can vary. So, at each office there’s always a social media focal point that drives the strategy at the individual office. And then it’s up to each individual office to form a team from there that can vary from just that one person to multiple people. But generally, in our offices the actual posting responsibility is spread out across a number of people on staff. Our team might focus on generating the content and doing training, but then the actual posting can be left up to anyone on shift.

Trower: So we have our public informations team in place. We have put that team together to help because social media can be a monster: getting information out in a timely manner and answering questions and responding to information about residents and the community. So our informations team was very busy.

Jobe: Well, it’s myself and the assistant coordinator. We have a weather guy who posts things about rainfall and temperatures, on a daily basis or maybe more often. We all participate—I wouldn’t call it anybody’s primary responsibility. We all do that together.

TM: What kind of plan did you have in place for handling social media during Hurricane Harvey?

Jobe: It was a team. The command center was established. The county judge was here and sometimes we had, I don’t know, ten people in here.  We would opt to put something on Facebook and that would be a warning, or an upcoming meeting, or anything that would pertain to the storm, or people who just needed information. I actually pulled the Facebook page back up, and anything pertaining to the storm we post on here so that word gets out. And it has gotten, through this hurricane, probably way more effective than it was before. There were people who said, “I never knew this Facebook page is here and I’m glad I know about it now.” I think that’s the goal: to try to have more people refer to this, especially in a time of crisis.

Safarzadeh: Well the plan is, if we can see it coming—unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way, but you know with weather patterns like we saw with Harvey—we have a great group of meteorologists and other types of weather people and emergency managers in the larger Harris County that are really, really good about communicating to all the different departments and agencies.  One of them is the sheriff’s office, so we were lucky that in the days leading up, like the Wednesday and Thursday before Harvey really impacted the Houston area, the sheriff was calling and planning briefings and key messaging with myself and a few other team members.

And then all of the command staff and all the essential personnel that were needed began having this conversation and started planning. And we are really lucky because most of it is very serious logistics, like how we are going to patrol and when we are going to have twelve-hour shifts.

Pieper: During the larger events like Harvey, things change quite a bit, especially at the national level. At the individual office level, they are on shift 24/7, as is any forecast officer who’s doing their job. So they’re always tweeting 24/7 and, depending on the event, they’re ramping up or changing messaging. At the national level, we’re normally staffed for at least sixteen hours a day, and then these get larger as we ramp up and they actually have more people on staff to help in various activities. But it’s actively monitoring trends that we want to address and talk about or developing graphics on the fly—things like that. A lot of the things that we develop during that ramped-up period we then distribute out as optional material for local offices to use as well.

TM: What were the key messages that you were focused on during Hurricane Harvey?

Trower: As far as social media goes, information moves pretty quickly, and just keeping residents informed, being at the EOC (Office of Emergency Management), we’re actually on site, so we’re getting information as it’s happening. So I would vet that information for our team, so they could it out.

Jobe: Mainly, I would say just situational awareness of what was going on. And also, that we use our Facebook to work with one of our cities for the same reason, because they refer their citizens to our Facebook page to get updates about their city. We did use it for warnings, but that was later on in the week. The first, probably, four days is based on just situational awareness: what was going on where and when to expect things.

Safarzadeh: Public safety, absolutely public safety. The unfortunate part with weather patterns is that until it hits, the professionals and experts are just making their best guesses. And so, like I said, we have very smart, very informationally savvy people working with us and for us, so our messaging is always the safety of the public first, whether that’s how to prepare for the storm, what supplies you might need, or “stay off the road, turn around, don’t drown.” 

Pieper: Throughout the duration of the storm, one of the steady drumbeats was the potential for catastrophic flooding. Pretty early on, that was the coordinated message across the agency. And so, early on, coordination amongst the different agencies and different offices and National Centers was to really work on the wording that we were going to be distributing via social media and web pages and our official products. Throughout the event, flooding was the big thing. We made sure that could keep on that drumbeat, and also the normal things that you’d expect during a hurricane. So, we amplified messages from local authorities regarding obeying evacuation orders. We also had our own material that emphasized following directions of local and national authorities regarding evacuation orders or advice that they’re giving locally. And then, as well, once again, the strength of the storm really became clearer with regard to the storm surge. We really added those to the messaging, regarding talking a lot more about storm surge and the dangers with the high winds and setting up the preparation estimation—letting people know what they could and couldn’t do in the face of the storm that was coming. So, flooding was the drumbeat throughout, and then we added to the messaging before landfall, and then flooding continued to be the story for days and days and days.

TM: How did people respond to your posts on social media?

Safarzadeh: I will say that at any given moment between Saturday afternoon and the following Wednesday, it was a 24-hour digital cycle. I mean, at some point we had to close our eyes for just a minute. But at any minute if I refreshed our Facebook account or Twitter feed or any dotcom, we would have dozens upon dozens upon dozens of private messages. Mostly it was “I’m having a hard time getting through to 911.”

And it was two types of callers: either the caller was not in Harris County or impacted by Harvey but maybe they have family or loved ones here that they couldn’t get through to check on, or it was somebody needing rescue or assistance and they could not get through to 911 just because of the volume that the 911 centers were enduring. And so, a lot of the feedback was rescue requests—impactful, right-now, real time, “I’m stuck. I’m trapped. I need rescue.”

Or it was “thank you so much for the information, you guys are doing an excellent job.” And I’m not saying that to toot our own horn. That was really, truthfully the feedback we were getting, which is the best indicator that we’re doing the right thing. Not only are we putting out the messaging but people are reading it and they’re absorbing it and hopefully they’re sharing it also.

Pieper: Our messaging was, I guess, in general well-received. We had a lot of folks that were sharing our information very, very actively on Facebook and on Twitter. Harvey, the event itself, just speaks to the general eagerness of folks to share information with everybody. At that point, it was by far the most impressions, the most shares, the most traffic in general on our tweets and our Facebook posts since we started using social media in the National Weather Service. So, I’m generally positive and people seem to be very happy to pass that information along and try to keep their relatives, their loved ones, safe.

Trower: I can just give you an example. The county was offering—and they still are—free well-water testing so they could take it to the county’s lab and get it tested. We had lots of complaints because they were backed up and they could only take a certain amount after a while, because they needed to process what they had, so there were a lot of upset people because they had gotten their samples and they wanted to drop them off and they were only good for 24 hours. We were trying to explain the process to people, so eventually we were able to put out a little video to show this is how you do a proper testing of your water and get it to the lab in a certain time frame. So, it was just trying to provide information to people to understand why the process was taking a little bit longer. And once people understood, it was a little better, but there’s always going to be people that are going to be angry and upset and distressed during disaster.

During this emergency, we actually had one of my team members that was responding to comments and referring people back to information that we were putting out. People were nervous and scared, and sometimes social media is a way for people to vent, but we handled it the best that we could, referring back to the information that we were providing and giving. So we were just trying to let residents know we were here and on top of what was going on in the county and just trying to provide them with good solid information.

Jobe: “Thanks for adding heartache to hurt” was one of the comments. I just read that one. Or “They’re trying to scare us to death.” We didn’t comment back to any of those. The office didn’t. I don’t think anybody I knew did. But we also had people vouching for us sometimes. That’s part of it. And then a news thing is that one of the local news guys in Beaumont said that he thought we might be exaggerating, but we were seeing historic levels in the river. It had never been this high since the dam was built in the ’60s. People who saw 76 feet last week saw 81.78 feet during the flood event. That’s five feet higher, almost six feet higher, than they saw a year ago. That’s historic flooding.

TM: Did you receive messages from people asking for help or to be rescued? If so, how did you respond to them?

Pieper: Throughout all of our communications that we sent out, as good as we could do, we encouraged people to contact local authorities—so the normal messaging.

Safarzadeh: Basically, anything I was seeing or my team members were seeing we would run directly to the dispatch desk and ask them to plug in these addresses. Hopefully they were in the county. If they weren’t, and they were in the city or another jurisdiction we would immediately run to another desk because everybody has representatives there. And we would share that information. Hopefully, they got to them the best they could.

But if it was in a county or somewhere we were or could get to, we would just put it in like a normal call. We would ask questions, like “How high is the water? Down to your ankle?” That’s scary, but that’s not necessarily life threatening. We had people tweeting that they’re on a first story and the water has come up to their chest and now they’re on the roof. We saw stuff coming from people that were pregnant, people that were disabled, people that were blind, people with small children, people with sick family members on dialysis or chemotherapy.

The idea is that you try your best to vet it and prioritize that like you would any other type of police call. And it’s not that the people that aren’t higher priority won’t get help. It’s just we have to allocate our resources because, as you probably saw, we had limited resources. Because of the amount of people that were needing rescue, we had to get to those people first and then work backwards a little bit.

Trower: If we did get those, those were sent immediately to the sheriff’s office. But we did have a call center and those calls were routed to the public safety desk, so that they could be addressed and taken care of immediately. And we really had more retrievals than emergency rescues, because Brazoria County is not a flash flood kind of area, it’s a rising water area. So people saw the water getting closer to their homes, and it was more of a retrieval because they couldn’t get out. The water had risen and the roads were covered, so we had high water rescue being able to go in and get people out.

Jobe: I don’t remember seeing any “Please help me” rescue posts. And we don’t do Twitter, not that I’m aware of. And I don’t think the Sheriff’s department does either. So, I didn’t hear of any of those.

TM: How did you handle misinformation that you saw circulating?

Peiper: I don’t think that it’s new, and this wasn’t exclusive to Harvey: It’s social media, so there’s a lot of misinformation out there. And the weather service doesn’t take the tack of specifically looking for misinformation and calling a user out because that’s just not our job. But what we do is look at the trends and see if there are particular pieces of information that are shared that might not be reflecting the whole story. Or maybe we’re seeing a focus, for example, on a storm where people are really talking about the high winds and how dangerous it can it be, but  we weren’t seeing as much information about the potential for catastrophic flooding as we would have liked. And so, we really ramped up that messaging. So yeah, a lot of what we do is monitor what’s going on out there—looking at what people are saying and trying to either supplement that or steer people in the direction of talking more and more about the larger scale impacts and things we really want people to be thinking about.

Trower: Well, when we saw things or were told that there were things going around that weren’t true, we would try to put out the right information and be sure and just let people know to follow credible pages or credible information. Make sure that it’s coming from somebody that you trust and not to somebody that’s angry or putting out false information that don’t have the details. We would try to rebut that.

Jobe: I don’t remember seeing anything that was just wrong. If you look at the mosquito spray thing, people who were one-sided on that went against it. They had their opinions, which I’m not going to say were all correct. But as far as general bad information, I don’t think I saw, or remember seeing, anything.

Safarzadeh: I don’t know who started the “If you’re in a one-story or even two-story and the water’s rising that high, go to your attic.” That was bad information because when you’re in your attic, number one, we can’t see you. Number two, there’s no way to get out, unless you cut a hole into the roof. If the water was rising that fast and you have a one story, you’re now running the risk of getting trapped in your attic. So that that was bad information.

But as soon as you started seeing that circulate, all of the entities, which include the Houston police department and basically everybody in that first responder public safety mode, was like, “Wait a second. If you’re going to go into the attic and that’s your best option, then bring an axe or something that you know you can use to open up the roof so you can escape if you need to.”

We saw various rumors about what centers or shelters were closing when really they were still open. If it was brought to our attention or directed to us to fact-check, we accepted it immediately and circulated the correct advice, or kit, or location, or hours. Whatever it was. In the joint information center, there was the social media person for every major agency and or communications partner in there. We would have rumor control—so anything we were hearing, or seeing online, or that our dispatch was calling and telling us about. We were writing all of those down all the rumors on the board so that if somebody called here directly to the fire marshal’s office, and, maybe the person who answered didn’t have that information and hadn’t heard yet, they could look up on the board and say, “Here’s actually what’s going on.” There was information sharing among all the partners for rumor control—re-circulating the correct information and moving forward to the next public messaging.

TM: What did you observe or learn from handling social media during Hurricane Harvey?

Safarzadeh: Yeah, there’s plenty to learn. I think we did a really good job. I have to credit Sheriff Gonzalez who truthfully believes in social media. He believes in real time communication. He believed that we all need to be on board with that. In other law enforcement agencies it might be still considered as a fun tool or kind of a joke. But, luckily, Gonzalez champions it and he uses it himself.

We didn’t know because we haven’t experienced anything, since we started using social media, to this degree, but we will look back and start troubleshooting and figuring out how to incorporate it better for the use of 911. What does that look like? Is there somebody in dispatch or a group of people in dispatch just monitoring social media for 911-type calls or questions? Is there a liaison? Or, what does that look like? And I think that is one of our biggest takeaways from the use of social media perspective.

Peiper: I think specifically through social media, again, this has been by far the biggest amount of interaction and response that we’ve seen to the information that we’ve been sending from the national accounts for sure to that point. For example, one tweet of ours was in front of almost forty million people on August 27, which is 1thirteen3 times bigger than our previous most-seen tweet. And there were several tweets that were near or above a million impressions a piece. And so, by that measure, it was head and shoulders above any event thus far that I’ve seen, that I’ve experienced with regards to social media interaction from the public with Weather Service information.

Trower: I think really just being able to put those posts up as graphics, and getting a little more information out on Twitter than the usual 140 characters. I think that was a good thing: We got a lot of compliments on that and people appreciated  that it was more visible. As far as Facebook, when we started this, we had about 16,000 followers and now we have over 43,000, so we definitely know that people were watching when we put out information.

TM: What are some improvements or changes you plan to make for managing social media during a natural disaster?

Jobe: We are looking at doing some updating with our Web page and making it work a little better with our Facebook. And that it is something we’ve already addressed with some potential web designers, to make it so maybe those two can work together, rather than independently from each other. Our web page is not real strong. Not near as strong as the Facebook page. So that’s kind of where we’re going right now. No big plans on other social media, within this office anyway.

Trower: You know what, I’m going to let my team come up with things that they thought might could be better, but I think overall we did a pretty good job getting information out in a timely manner. We did have some technical difficulties. Our internet went down for a little while and that was hard, so we were hotspotting on our phone and trying to get that information out there that we could, so there was a little delay in that, so we’ll work on having a back-up for that.

Safarzadeh: We’ve already started working with the greater Harris County 911 center, huddling post-Harvey with their team and our team. That was mentioned by a few people in the room, that people were just so desperate they were calling anybody. They were calling any number. They were tweeting any account. They just needed help. 

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