By: Irfan Husain MS4, MPH candidate 

Natural disasters are an unavoidable and fairly frequent fact of life. In 2012 there were 357 registered natural disasters, resulting in 9,655 mortalities and $157 billion worth of damages[1,2]. One of the most recent, deadliest and highly publicized natural disasters of 2012 was Hurricane Sandy.

Its path of destruction along the northeast resulted in 286 deaths and $68 billion in damages. In recent years, disaster response organizations have increasingly used social media tools in their response to disasters like Sandy.

Social media channels have several advantages that make them well suited to disaster response. First, the audience is there – people are increasingly turning to these platforms to communicate with loved ones and get information. Second, it is low cost – sending a tweet to a million people is free. Finally, it’s a two way street – response groups can both send and receive information through these channels.

In 2012, the Red Cross did a survey to evaluate how social media could be used in disaster response efforts. That same year, those tools were used in Sandy response and recovery efforts. Here, we’ll review how platforms like Twitter and Facebook were used by disaster response groups to save lives.

During Hurricane Sandy, several disaster response organizations used social media tools to help manage their efforts. The Red Cross established a social engagement team to track comments posted on social media platforms and used that information to respond to individual comments/requests and to strategically focus their resources in particular areas[3].

They additionally had up-to-date information on shelter capacity and locations using their shelter app. FEMA was also using their website as well as Twitter to inform people on how to receive help and locate shelters. The NYC Mayor’s Office was sending out safety updates, recommendations, and food distribution sites both during and after the storm via Twitter and their website. These examples represent only a fraction of the social media traffic dedicated to Hurricane Sandy[4].

We have generally relied on traditional forms of media, such as radio, television, and print to receive emergency alerts and up-to-date developments. However, with the advancements in social media and a surge in the prevalence of smartphones, we are seeing live Twitter and Facebook updates and emergency-related applications acting as America’s primary source for disaster-related news. The latest Nielsen report from August 2013 has smartphone penetration at 64% among mobile phone owners in the United States, up from 50% in March 2012 and 10% in 2008[6].

Mobile phones are one of the few things we can count on Americans to be consistently carrying on their person, especially during an impromptu emergency situation. As such, governmental agencies and NGOs are adapting and beginning to reach out to the public through mobile applications in order to provide direct, from-the-source, rapid and life-saving alerts and updates.

The Red Cross was one of the first organizations to adopt a series of comprehensive emergency apps that focused on all phases of a disaster – preparedness, response, and recovery. In fact, in 2012 the Red Cross conducted a survey to better analyze social media and mobile app use amongst the American public in emergency situations. The survey proved useful in putting a number to some common mHealth questions and in capturing the public’s expectations during emergency situations.

Key Red Cross study findings[7]:

  • 1 in 5 Americans (18+) have used a mobile application for their source in emergency news
  • Reliance on traditional media during emergency situations has declined (2011 to 2012)
  • Television has declined by 9%, radio by 9%, and online news by 8%
  • The top five most popular emergency apps were weather forecasting apps, flashlight apps, first aid apps, police scanner apps, and disaster preparedness apps

Of those deemed emergency social users, or in other words, the 48% of total surveyors who participate in online communities or social networks:

  • 1 in 4 downloaded an emergency app
  • 76% contacted family and friends to check to see if they were safe
  • 37% used social media to find shelter
  • 1 out of 3 Americans would expect help to arrive within 1 hour after posting on a social media outlet, while 3 out of 4 would expect help to arrive within 3 hours of posting
  • Nearly 50% of Americans believe that local emergency response organizations should regularly monitor social media outlets
  • Approximately 75% believe the same for national emergency response organizations

The graphic below, created by the University of San Francisco, does a fantastic job in capturing these key statistics from the American Red Cross study, with additional statistics on recent disasters, including Hurricane Sandy[8].

social media graphic

As social media and mobile apps continue to grow, we will see an increased effort among local emergency response organizations like local hospitals, police, and fire departments to stay in constant communication with their community through the creation of apps and Twitter and Facebook updates.

It is at the local organizational level with direct communication with local officials, where social media can have the greatest impact in disaster settings. With the creation of novel apps focused on preparation, response, communication, real-time updates, and help delivery, we will better equip the public – the true first responders – with the tools needed to survive until help can arrive.



Irfan Husain is a rising fourth year medical student at East Carolina University. He is currently completing a Masters in Public Health at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. He plans to pursue Emergency Medicine with a particular interest in refugee health.