When Disaster Hits and Landlines Fail, Social Media Is a Lifeline

Since Hurricane Maria lashed Puerto Rico this week, Carol Mitchell has not heard a word from her mother.

Ms. Mitchell, who is in Tampa, Fla., said her mother lives in Utuado, a mountainous Puerto Rican municipality where there have been reports of fatal landslides. Unable to reach the area directly — power is out across the island, and communication is severely constrained — Ms. Mitchell is using phone messaging apps like Zello and WhatsApp to reach people in San Juan, the capital.

“People in Puerto Rico are getting pictures, and then they’re sending them to us so we know what’s going on as much as we can,” she said, adding that the snippets of information she received on her phone were not enough, but were better than nothing.

“It’s the only way.”

Seeking help, from anyone

During hurricanes in the Caribbean, Texas and Florida in recent weeks, and after the earthquake that killed hundreds in Mexico on Tuesday, many people turned their smartphones into lifelines.

It happened after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas last month, when people who could not quickly reach official emergency medical workers turned to social media, often posting their addresses on Facebook and Twitter. Civilians were frequently the ones to respond.

It happened on the Caribbean island of Dominica, which was ravaged early this week by Hurricane Maria. Residents were struggling to communicate after phone lines and power were knocked out across the island, said Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit.

“We have very limited telecommunications services; it’s by WhatsApp, mainly,” Mr. Skerrit said in an interview with ABS Television in nearby Antigua on Thursday.

It happened in Florida, where social media helped to amplify distress calls during Hurricane Irma and, later, to highlight some of the emergency workers and civilians who came to the rescue.

And it happened after the devastating earthquake in Mexico, when parents outside Enrique Rebsámen, a private school in Mexico City that collapsed, used WhatsApp to exchange desperate messages with children still trapped inside.

911 in the smartphone era

Calling 911 is still the recommended way to reach qualified emergency workers. But traditional dispatchers are well aware that new technologies are changing the landscape of disaster response.

Christopher Carver, the operations director of the National Emergency Number Association, or NENA, recalled working as a chief fire alarm dispatcher in New York City during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

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“People were in the very early stages of using Facebook messages and tweets,” he said. “The messages were monitored by the New York City Fire Department’s social media person. I believe she was an intern.”

It was an early sign of the ways social media could complicate traditional emergency response protocols.

“Social media is becoming a tool for the younger generation to reach out to express their need for help, and in some 911 centers they are aware of social media and will try to monitor it as best they can,” said Brian Fontes, NENA’s chief executive.

But he added that of the thousands of 911 call centers across the United States, fewer than a quarter are even equipped to receive text messages.

NENA is working on a plan called Next Generation 911, which would overhaul the system to make it more modern. But Mr. Fontes said it had been a struggle to attract the federal funding for the project, which is already underway but is expected to cost billions of dollars.

Distress signals, disrupted

In the meantime, technology companies are filling some of the gaps. Zello, one of the messaging apps used by Ms. Mitchell, was introduced in 2012 and was created to work in low-bandwidth environments. It has an interface reminiscent of old-fashioned walkie-talkies, though it can also host private chats.

As the disasters in Texas, the Caribbean and Florida unfolded, the number of new Zello users exploded. The app had about a million new registrations every day, some 20 times its normal rate, said Bill Moore, the company’s chief executive.

He pointed to work done during Hurricane Harvey, where some members of the so-called Cajun Navy, a mostly civilian collection of people with private boats, used the app to plan their rescues.

“They were highly effective,” Mr. Moore said. “It really makes you proud to be a human because you just saw such good work.”

Mr. Carver of NENA said that 911 was adjusting to new technologies. But he added that the use of messaging apps or social media in emergency situations raised new concerns about verifying people’s locations and protecting their privacy.

“The effort to modernize 911 will hopefully lead us to far greater national disaster resilience capabilities,” he said.

A call for help is only the first step

Ms. Mitchell, in Tampa, knows that messaging apps can do only so much. Photos from San Juan haven’t helped her reach her mother, and she worries that emergency workers in Puerto Rico might take too long to get to Utuado.

So she is preparing to fly to the island as soon as the airports are open and trek to Utuado herself. “If the government won’t do it, we have to do it,” she said. “We have to get our people.”