The weather-related adage about a precious metal being tucked inside of a dark cloud came to mind recently while monitoring the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
For many Texas residents, social media offered a life-saving silver lining and means of connecting with a non-traditional navy composed of boat-loving rescuers.
CNN Money’s Brian Stelter filed an outstanding online story about the impact of Facebook and Twitter during the recent Houston flooding.
Hundreds of stranded Texas residents sought help by tweeting their addresses to emergency responder, Stelter reported. They organized rescue missions through Facebook groups. And they posted harrowing pictures to emphasize just how high the flood waters were.
Some particularly web-savvy officials responded to the requests nearly in real time. Stelter keenly observed that Americans have seen this kind of web-enabled emergency response in other countries before, but never in the United States on such as large scale.
In fact, the last time a “major” hurricane made landfall, in 2005, Twitter didn’t even exist.
According to Stelter, many Houston residents relied on local TV and radio for information, but reached for their smartphones to seek help.
In many parts of the city and surrounding communities, cell phone towers were functional despite the flooding rains.
So citizens were able to read updates from local officials and post their own updates. That’s why urgent requests for rescues piled up on Houston-area Facebook pages, Stelter explained.
Some local journalists who spotted the posts vigilantly forwarded the messages to authorities. As the flooding worsened, some officials emphasized that posting on social media should not be construed as a replacement for calling 911.
But Facebook and Twitter were clearly used as a supplement – if not a replacement – for traditional emergency services, Stelter concluded.
The two social media platforms also provided links to large numbers of volunteers who loaded up their boats and headed to flooded areas.
CNN’s Ed Lavandera came upon a pair of men readying a boat under a flooded overpass somewhere in southeast Texas during his live reporting.
“You guys just jumping in to help out?” asked Lavandera. “Yes sir,” said one of the men.
The men had arrived from Texas City to use their boat to help out in rescue efforts.
“What are you going to do?” Lavandera asked. “Go try to save some lives,” the man replied.
That moment, and the boating community’s response to a natural disaster of historic proportions, will be remembered long after the floodwaters spawned by Hurricane Harvey have receded.