With the recovery process underway after Hurricane Harvey, scientists and researchers are evaluating the unique challenges associated with Hurricane Harvey, including record-breaking rainfall, competing high-pressure systems and speed at which it developed to a Category 4 storm. Aside from meteorological variations, Harvey also shined a light on the invaluable role of social media for emergencies.
Hurricane Harvey Showed All Agencies Use Social Media for Emergencies
For the first time, public agency officials like Parisa Safarzadeh, digital media manager for Harris County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO), and Francisco Sanchez, PIO for Harris County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (HCOHSEM), leaned heavily on social media to lead their emergency communication efforts.
The significant difference between Harvey and Katrina was the way we pushed out information,” said Safarzadeh. “When residents couldn’t access TV for important news, they turned to their smartphones for related updates. We could tell that social media was the clear winner for pushing out information during Hurricane Harvey.”
Safarzadeh runs HCSO’s social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. The agency also utilizes Nextdoor for Public Agencies, along with more than 120 public agencies in the greater Houston area, who use Nextdoor to connect with residents. All agencies relied on the platform during Hurricane Harvey.
As a whole, Houston-area agencies shared more than 1,200 posts and 3,000 Urgent Alerts, and received more than 10,000 replies and 55,000 ‘Thanks’ during the hurricane. Many departments worked together to disseminate information, often posting messages from other departments to ensure the updates were seen by as many residents as possible.
The use of Nextdoor during Hurricane Harvey proved to public agencies across the greater Houston area and beyond that social media is a powerful communication tool every local emergency response department should have in its tool kit. Even more apparent were the benefits that a community-centric platform offers to public agencies, and just how important it is for communities to be well connected prior to disasters.
Baking-In Preparedness with Local Conversations
For the Harris County Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Management, Nextdoor for Public Agencies is a way to build disaster preparedness before the emergency hits.
When public agencies join Nextdoor, they have the ability to communicate with all existing Nextdoor members in their jurisdiction. While social networks like Facebook or Twitter make it possible to connect on a global scale, Nextdoor is built for local conversations. For Sanchez, Nextdoor allowed HCOHSEM to increase attendance at public education events, including a disaster preparedness resource fair for pet owners.
We had tried promoting through traditional media and other social media platforms, but when we utilized Nextdoor, registrations went through the roof,” said Sanchez. “They easily doubled. In fact, there were so many registrations that we had to move to an entirely different space.”
As the Public Information Officer of HCOHSEM, Sanchez stresses the importance of building an active social media presence in non-emergency settings and taking advantage of “the ability to interact with people and create credibility and trust.” In anticipation of future events, Sanchez used Nextdoor to promote the ReadyHarris app, their internal emergency communication tool, to verified residents of Harris County.
Beyond reaching the right audience, Sanchez explains, “If we know they’re on Nextdoor, we know they’re already active in the digital space and in the right position to download ReadyHarris.”
Leading up to Hurricane Harvey, Safarzadeh actively posted on social media channels, including Nextdoor for Public Agencies, to reiterate messaging pushed out by HCOHSEM. Through this joint coordination, Harris County residents on Nextdoor were able to receive important weather updates and tips on hurricane preparedness.
Geo-Target Information to the Right Neighborhoods
During the storm, Safarzadeh utilized the geo-targeting feature on Nextdoor for Public Agencies to ensure that the right messages went to the right audiences.
For a county more than 1,700 square miles, storm conditions significantly varied by region – ranging from heavy rain and flooding to unforeseen tornadoes.
“Our social media communication really took off when the tornado landed because we were able to target the neighborhoods that were affected,” said Safarzadeh. “Geo-targeting our messaging was critical because tornadoes in this region were unusual and unfamiliar to residents. We were able to give out tornado tips specifically to the region and neighborhoods that were impacted.”
Actively Address False Information and Rumors
The quick dissemination of information makes social media a double-edged sword for public safety departments.
While Harvey demonstrated residents’ good intentions of sharing helpful updates, online social networks contributed to the spread of false information. During Hurricane Harvey, people were under the impression that they should take shelter in their attics and were quick to post this information on social media. However, as Safarzadeh explains, taking shelter in an attic is not recommended during a hurricane event.
“The first problem is that during a rescue, responders won’t be able to see residents from the attic. Secondly, if the water gets high enough, residents will lose their only exit route,” said Safarzadeh, who used Nextdoor to address false information and rumors, alerting residents to leave their attics immediately.
Similar to their counterparts in Harris County, agencies such as the Houston Police Department used Nextdoor to counteract the spread of misinformation and ensure neighbors were kept up-to-date with accurate information. An officer at Houston PD took the time to respond on Nextdoor to every resident who reached out to the PD during Hurricane Harvey, addressing concerns and correcting misinformation.
Clarify How to Seek Help and Contact Inundated 911
Hurricane Harvey revealed how vital social media can be during disasters, and public safety departments now staunchly defend the importance of maintaining a social media presence during emergencies. For context, on an average day, Houston 911 receives around 8,000 calls. Within 15 hours of the storm, there had been over 56,000 calls.
This abnormally high volume caused a strain on the existing 911 call system and residents were unable to connect to 911. Safarzadeh describes how social media became a critical lifeline, allowing departments to relay important directions and clarifying how to contact 911: “During Hurricane Harvey, residents would call 911 and hang up when they thought they weren’t getting through. When they re-dialed 911, residents were unintentionally stacking their calls on each other. It was critical that we communicated, ‘If this is an emergency, do not hang up. Stay on the line. Do not hang up’ repeatedly through multiple social media channels.”
Social Media Is the New Door-to-Door
Events like Hurricane Harvey speak to the elevated and expansive new role of social media. As online channels replace traditional press conferences and press releases, it’s essential for public safety departments to put social media at the forefront of their communication strategy.
In addition to opening the channel between governments and their communities, Sanchez speaks to the value within communities: “Only one percent of our residents are first responders. A disaster means that local resources, including these first responders, are overwhelmed. As a platform that allows communities to help themselves, Nextdoor helps alleviate this demand by creating a place for people to go to for information.”
Hurricane Harvey has shown that social media is more than just text on a screen. As real residents fire up their smartphones for relevant updates from local public safety providers, online engagement from public safety departments can inspire communities to work together and even save lives.
As Parisa Safarzadeh emphasizes to other departments, “I have no doubt Nextdoor helped us save lives. It’s not about your department size or the resources that you have or don’t have. It’s about what your community is using for social media. You better get on that because you can’t go door-to-door anymore to share information. At Harris County Sheriff’s Office, we have digital doors to knock on and that’s what we do.”
About the Author
Caitlin Lee is a public agency associate at Nextdoor. Caitlin builds and supports partnerships with public agencies and is passionate about sharing the ways in which local governments utilize Nextdoor to strengthen their communities.
Learn more about the ReadyHarris app in our previous coverage:
Access a government report on emergency preparedness actions for Harris County: