The nightmarish images from Houston of collapsed homes and streets that have turned into rivers are eerily reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina from 2005. During Katrina, phone calls to 911 and other emergency numbers was the primary way that victims found help. While this is still the case, victims have another tool at their disposal: social media. In 2005, Twitter did not exist and access to Facebook was limited to desktops. The iPhone didn’t come out until 2007. More than a decade after Katrina, social media is now a part of most American’s daily lives, and imperiled victims of Hurricane Harvey have been using it as a cry for help. Desperate messages with home addresses and pleas for help have pervaded the Twitter feeds of users in the Houston area.

According to The Washington Post, on Sunday morning, Maritza Willis tweeted “I have 2 children with me and the water is swallowing us up…911 is not responding!!!!!!” She also included her address and a little over an hour later, she had been saved by emergency workers.

In a follow-up tweet, Willis wrote: “The children and I are safe. Thank you everyone and thank you Facebook!!!!!! [she had also posted to Facebook] The miracles of social media. Forever grateful!!!”

Willis’s tweet for help was re-tweeted more than 1,000 times. To point out the obvious, social media is helpful in circulating messages because a single message can be spread to a wide audience as it gets passed on many times over. In a rescue effort like this, success requires people who are not in distress to facilitate help for others. Among those passing along messages has been the Houston Rockets basketball player, Clint Capela. Capela promised his more than 27,000 Twitter followers that he would share their emergency situations on his Twitter feed. His feed has turned into a stream of desperation and hope, where stranded victims are posting their addresses, trying to connect with people who can save them by boat.

Another example of technology saving lives in this natural disaster was on Monday when a woman stuck on a roof with dozens of others appeared on “Good Morning America” via FaceTime, begging for help. The show’s producers contacted the National Guard and reported a few hours later that a Coast Guard helicopter was on its way to rescue the group.

According to ABC News, some local Houston-area officials and law enforcement have engaged with hurricane victims on Twitter, answering questions and offering assistance. They have also used their Twitter accounts to distribute information. Via Twitter, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office advised people awaiting rescue on Monday to hang a sheet or towel somewhere visible so that officers can find them.

Yet the Coast Guard instructed those waiting to be rescued not to use social media as a replacement for calling. On Monday, the Coast Guard’s Twitter account read:

“To report a #harvey emergency you must call numbers below or 911 for assistance. If busy keep trying. Do not report distress on social media.”

But when phone battery power is diminishing and 911 calls are going unanswered, social media is offering hope for victims that someone might see the plea and be able to get through to rescue workers.

Timothy McIntosh gives credit to a photo he tweeted on Sunday for getting the National Guard to rescue patients in danger in his family’s nursing home. The photo – which showed elderly women sitting waist-deep in water – was shared on Twitter almost 5,000 times. The National Guard learned of their situation and the patients were rescued by helicopter.

In addition to helping with immediate, life-saving rescues, social media is also helping to raise funds for the rescue effort. On Sunday, J.J. Watt, a famous American NFL defensive end for the Houston Texans, asked his 3.9 million Twitter followers to help raise $500,000 for the rescue effort. By Monday night, $800,000 had been donated via the crowd funding site, Late Monday night, Watt raised the new goal to $1.5 million. The was not working Monday night, likely because the site was not prepared for the volume of visitors seeking to donate to the rescue and relief effort.

“Incredible to witness people coming together for the greater good of humanity,” Watt wrote in a tweet on Monday.



By Todd Stone