Social media tranforming communication during hurricanes

May 24, 2013 8:19:27 PM PDT
When Hurricane Ike hit five years ago, new social media was in its infancy. The iPhone was a year old. The iPad didn't even exist. Since then, communication tools have changed and so has emergency communication during a storm.

Back in 2008, Facebook was just starting to catch on. Only 1 million Twitter users were tweeting, versus nearly 500 million today worldwide. Blogs were all the rage back then, and our Houston weather blog was helping connect loved ones in Ike's aftermath.

Fast forward to October 2012, when Hurricane Sandy slammed the East Coast. People all around the globe were watching this natural disaster unfold in real time through the eyes of social media.

"I saw a combination of photos, videos in a way that's never been done before because as you know, you can't really get out there and get into the middle of the action," social media expert Ashley Small said. "But what's so great is that it equipped the everyday person with the tools to take a video, upload it to YouTube, add a hashtag to it, tweet it out. Same thing on Facebook."

Small says it was the most documented U.S. natural disaster ever on social networks.

"What I saw a lot of during the hurricane was that people were using hashtags. There were over 300,000 photos uploaded using hashtags -- #sandy, #hurricanesandy, #frankenstorm -- and so it was a great way to really zoom in on those conversations and monitor them," Small said. "So in terms of really targeting the conversation and being able to track specific topics, Twitter is incredible. There's nothing quite like it."

More than anything else, the smartphone has enabled these social networks to thrive, transforming our lives in ways we couldn't imagine during Hurricane Ike, which leads us to an important lesson learned about social media.

"It's important to at least have a Facebook account, it's important to at least have a Twitter account because of a worst-case scenario, you can at least be reached," Small said. "We also learned it's important for people who are in positions of authority to be able to communicate and be candid and honest and open and to also be willing to listen to what the public is saying."

And authorities are listening, especially here locally at Houston's Emergency Operations Center.

"We're looking at the way we communicate needs to match the way that people communicate every single day," said Michael Walter, the public information officer for City of Houston Office of Emergency Management.

Plans for the next storm that strikes our coast?

"We're also going to be putting out Twitter messages, we're going to be putting out Facebook messages. You'll also see AlertHouston email notifications coming out from the city as well. That will give you an idea of what are some of the steps people can take to be prepared for that storm," Walter said.

This weekend, join the ABC13 weather team for a special report on this year's hurricane season. "Eye On The Gulf: Extreme Storms" airs this Sunday at 10:35pm.

Keep your family safe this hurricane season. Check our complete tropical weather preparation guide

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