Social Media and Disasters

Public and private institutions and individual citizens use social media to spread essential disaster-related messages to the masses in real time.

The rapid rise of social media activity after major disasters has not only grabbed the attention of federal and local government officials, but led to an increase in social media training efforts among emergency management staffs nationwide. Shortly after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reported more than 20 million Sandy-related Twitter posts (Tweets) were sent despite cell phone outages during the peak of the storm. According to GovTwit.com, a social media online resource for government agencies, 23 million people follow Twitter accounts maintained by government entities.

Follow the Disaster Distress Helpline

The Disaster Distress Helpline, 1-800-985-5990, has an active presence on popular social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, offering disaster-related facts, coping tips, resources, and live conversations.

Text the Disaster Distress Helpline

Texting is the preferred form of social networking for some. Smartphones allow people to post messages to social media as well as send a text. Text TalkWithUs or, for Spanish speakers, Hablanos to 66746 to reach a crisis counselor 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. English speakers in U.S. territories text TalkWithUs to 1-212-461-4635.

Stay Connected

A common fear associated with disasters is being separated from loved ones and unable to contact them. If you have access to a mobile device (smartphone or tablet) or a computer, social media platforms are among the quickest ways to tell family and friends you are safe and out of harm’s way, or if you need help or emergency assistance.

The power of social media often goes beyond where the actual disaster takes place, setting off a chain reaction of encouragement and support from friends, family, and concerned strangers alike. In some instances, disaster survivors have been connected to resources they needed because others outside of the affected areas “retweeted” or reposted their original pleas for help.

Google Person Finder is a Web application that allows individuals to post, search, and reconnect with friends and family in the aftermath of natural or human-caused disasters. The American Red Cross offers a similar online registration called Safe & Well. If disaster strikes, you can add yourself to the database to let family and friends know that you are safe, and you can search registered loved ones to find out their status.

Institutions Share Important Information Faster

Many people rely on social media to receive timely, important information when a disaster takes place.

  • Government agencies share vital information with the public, such as disaster updates, contact information, shelter locations, and other useful resources.
  • Utility providers communicate with customers, respond to reports of power outages and water use restrictions, and share restoration updates.
  • First responders and volunteers use social media to directly speak with the public and to mobilize, assess, and prioritize the needs of the community.
  • Educational institutions, such as colleges and universities, send alerts to students, faculty, and parents about when and where to take shelter (during natural disasters) or to go into a lockdown mode (during a mass shooting).

Institutions, civic organizations, and individual community members have used social media to instantly spread important information regarding:

  • Availability of supplies
  • Sources for medical assistance and counseling services
  • Status of businesses
  • Power outages
  • Road closures or areas to avoid

For incidents of mass violence, like a shooting or act of terrorism, alerts via text message and social media from local law enforcement inform those in danger and the community when lockdown modes have been lifted. These kinds of alerts also warn others nearby to stay away. Learn more about incidents of mass violence.

Resources About Social Media and Disasters

  • The SAMHSA Disaster Technical Assistance Center (DTAC) offers an extensive resource for education and training opportunities for first responders and recovery workers that includes newsletters, podcasts, and videos.
  • For emergency management officials, staff, and press officers, FEMA provides a self-guided online course on how to effectively and properly use social media.
  • The National Preparedness Community at FEMA allows emergency management professionals to speak with one another and share ideas and best practices in social media.

Learn more about Disaster Preparedness, Response, and Recovery.

Last Updated: 01/26/2017