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Hurricane Harvey: Emerging Insights for Emergency Management

August 30, 2017
Satyamoorthy Kabilan
Director
National Security and Strategic Foresight

The devastation being wrought by Hurricane Harvey in the United States has been staggering. The impact on Houston, the fourth-largest city in the United States, illustrates the impact a disaster of this magnitude can have on a major urban center. There will certainly be a range of lessons for emergency management and disaster response that will emerge from this event in the months to follow. But a couple of key insights that have already emerged are worth highlighting.

Volunteers Are an Invaluable Resource

The scale of the emergency wrought by Hurricane Harvey has been overwhelming, with first responders struggling to deal with the sheer volume of calls for assistance. In the midst of this, we are hearing stories of volunteers from all walks of life coming to the aid of people in need. One example of this is the Cajun Navy, a group of volunteers from Louisiana, who brought their boats to try to help rescue people trapped by flooding in Texas. The Cajun Navy has been leveraging Facebook and the Zello messaging app to communicate and receive requests for help, an innovative approach for addressing their communication and coordination needs. We have seen volunteers play a key role in a range of emergencies, from the 2013 Calgary Flood to the response to Hurricane Sandy. Volunteers are going to show up and act, whether you like it or not. The discussion needs to shift from one of keeping volunteers at bay to figuring out how best to integrate them and utilize their skills, resources, and enthusiasm as a positive force multiplier in disasters. This may not be a comfortable choice for emergency management professionals, but it is part and parcel of our reality today, which we need to deal with effectively.

Social Media Can Be a Tremendous Asset, but Beware Its Dark Side

The role of social media in creating a new communication paradigm in emergency management has been well documented. It should come as no surprise that social media is playing a key role in the response to Hurricane Harvey, not only in terms of sharing information but also as a means for emergency communication. While many first responder agencies discourage the use of social media as a means of emergency communication (in many cases, because they are not set up to deal with it), the reality is that there is a significant public expectation that first responders are monitoring social media and will respond to calls for help. We cannot afford to ignore the public’s use of social media for emergency communication, and we have to find ways to integrate this. Much like the previous insight around volunteers, the use of social media for emergency communication is growing whether we like it or not.

While social media offers many potential benefits during a disaster, it also comes with a dark side. Social media has been used as a platform for scams involving donations on the back of major disasters. More disturbingly, we are also starting to see instances where fake news stories are being proliferated on social media in the midst of a disaster, which can tie up resources and potentially lead to tragic consequences. The social media strategy for emergency management needs to include approaches for challenging fake news and building trust as a reliable source of information in a disaster.

There a couple of clear lessons from Hurricane Harvey that emergency management professionals should consider acting on if they have not already done so. Volunteers are going to show up whether we want them to or not, and it is better to find ways to integrate them into emergency management plans. The public’s expectation around using social media to call for help is only going to grow, and emergency managers need to find ways to integrate and potentially leverage this expectation. Social media does come with a dark side. We need to be ready and able to deal with fake news and misinformation on these platforms.

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