Social media lessons from Calgary flood highlighted in wake of Houston crisis

Calgary was a game-changer when it comes to communicating during natural disasters, according to the author of an article published this week on social networking in emergencies.

New article lauds Calgary's use of social media during 2013 floods

In June 2013, a massive storm dumped record amounts of rain on southern Alberta, leading to devastating flooding in Calgary and nearby communities. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Calgary was a game-changer when it comes to communicating during natural disasters, according to the author of an article published this week on social networking during emergencies.

The article, published for Defence Research and Development Canada, references the 2013 floods as an example of how social media-organized volunteering can help get a city back on its feet quickly after disaster strikes.

It comes as catastrophic flooding continues to pummel parts of Texas, with record rainfall from Hurricane Harvey wreaking havoc in Houston, including mass evacuations and rescues.

"I think it was just that willingness to engage the people ... and that the public can help and they're going to do more good than harm," said author Suzanne Waldman, with Defence Research and Development Canada's Centre for Security Science.

Calgarians look out over the flooded Calgary Stampede grounds in late June 2013. The city is now looking at options to mitigate flood damage along rivers that flow within the city. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Waldman's article looks at how social media can help emergency responders share information and keep on top of quickly changing situations and conditions, and can be used to rally and mobilize volunteers.  

"You guys have this mayor who was willing to take a risk at the time, to talk to people on Twitter and to gather people to help out," she said. "Because they took the risk, they advanced the paradigm. The 'we can' attitude was really fantastic for Calgary to show a good example of working."

There are already countless examples coming out of Houston of social media in action.

With reports of 911 systems being overwhelmed, there are reports of some arranging their own rescues from life-threatening situations using social media. People with boats have been mobilized to sail down city streets, with others taking to Twitter and Facebook to find, and offer, shelter, food and clothing.

Residents use boats to escape flood waters from Tropical Storm Harvey in Houston, Texas.

Houston police are using Twitter as a communication channel, for calls to action and for responding to pleas for help from residents who have Tweeted at them directly. 

It brings back memories of 2013 for Const. Jeremy Shaw, digital communications officer with the Calgary Police Service.

"A lot of citizens were looking for information, which communities were evacuated, which communities were next to be evacuated," said Shaw. "The public are searching for quick and credible information."

"The RCMP in High River phoned us looking for heavy equipment. They needed bobcats and loaders and boats, and we were able to put out a request for help on our social media channels. I don't know how else we would have done it," Shaw added. 

The City of Calgary says social media quickly became one the city's primary communication channels during the 2013 flood, while at the same time providing a place for community action.

Residents use boats to escape flood waters from Tropical Storm Harvey along Tidwell Road in east Houston, Texas, on Monday. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

"While authorities are busy mitigating or responding to a situation, social gives community a place to connect and support each other," said Benjamin Morgan, lead for public relations and crisis with the city. "The other advantage is influencers and the ability for our messages to be shared."

"One of the most amazing features we saw in 2013 was the organic conversation where community was helping community. Facebook groups evolved as well as posts on Kijiji with people offering Calgarians a place to stay," Morgan said. 

In Calgary's case, social media helped the city bounce back in weeks, rather than months, Waldman said.

Even with the might of social media, the scale of the disaster in Houston points to a recovery that is more likely to take years.