How social media helps (and hurts) in a natural disaster

We can probably fill in the sentence "Social media has completely changed _____" with almost anything. Thankfully, instead of reporting on the latest trolling tactic, cyber-bullying campaign, or scam, we get to tell you how Hurricane Harvey has apparently driven us to social media to mostly help our fellow man.

"It's a natural progression within our culture," social media expert Chris Dessi said. "When people want to connect with their friends and their family, where do they go to reach the broadest audience?"

Increasingly, we see those with something to say, share, or ask posting their statement, thought, or question for friends, family, and strangers on social media.

"It's happening and it's saving lives," Dessi said.

During Hurricane Harvey, 911 call centers were inundated with calls and first-responders struggled to identify, find, and then reach the thousands in need of evacuation. So Twitter and Facebook continue to play a vital role in mobilizing volunteers, connecting with rescuers (professional and amateur), and helping those scared and potentially in danger not feel so alone.

"This is social media at its best," Dessi said.

A photo posted to Twitter of those stranded in feet of water in a nursing home outside of Houston received thousands of retweets and perhaps expedited their rescue.

Volunteers calling themselves the Cajun and Texas navies patrol the flooded streets of Houston in a variety of personal boats answering social media calls for help.

And the barrage of social media pictures, videos, and posts has helped those both in and well outside the path of the hurricane to understand what is happening perhaps better than during any natural disaster before.

"There wasn't this really tight ecosystem of friends and family that you're seeing via Facebook, via Twitter and even via Snapchat," Dessi said.

All that attention has also attracted those merchants of chaos. A Photoshopped image of a shark swimming down a Texas freeway received tens of thousands of retweets.

"We're used to ignoring the knuckleheads when it comes to this kind of stuff," Dessi said.

Professional first responders still ask those in need of rescue to call to report their location and situation.