After the Flood: Finding help in the Twitterverse

South Carolina’s 1,000-year rainfall event and catastrophic flooding in October 2015 caused several deaths, scores of dam breaches, extensive property damage, drinking water contamination and agricultural loss. Immediately after the catastrophe, the Office of the Vice President for Research created internal funding opportunities to support relevant faculty research. Thirty-four projects, led by more than 80 faculty researchers, were funded and reports from each project will be presented this October at the S.C. Floods Conference. Here is the first of six stories from a cross-section of the projects.

Tweets and posts: Measuring social media’s effectiveness during and after the flood

In their personal experiences in Columbia during last October’s flooding, the Arnold School of Public Health’s Heather Brandt and Brie Turner-McGrievy were struck by how well many individuals worked together in responding to the disaster.

“When you woke up on Sunday morning during the flooding here, people were in the boats that they had unhooked from their own trailers, and were off rescuing people. These were citizens doing that,” Brandt says. “Within 24 hours, huge teams of self-organized neighbors had gone in to flooded homes and said, ‘We have to get this drywall out of your house because mold sets in within a very short period of time.’ ”

Five days of incessant downpours had struck the Palmetto State hard, and South Carolinians responded with months of highly orchestrated rescue, repair and recovery operations, with an almost preternatural collective sense for finding those who needed help most.

That level of self-organization, Brandt and Turner-McGrievy hypothesized, probably had some roots in social media, a tool employed by emergency responders, government agencies, nonprofit groups, media and everyday citizens during the storm and its aftermath. But when they organized a team to document and analyze the social media response to the flooding, they found that, like the flood itself, its volume was overwhelming.

“The sheer number of tweets and Facebook posts would break a computer,” Brandt says.

So they scaled back their approach, but even when they focused solely on the Twitter platform, restricted the scope to Midlands tweets, considered tweets only from a limited number of hashtags and included just one in every 10 in the analysis, the team still had more than thousands of tweets to consider.

The heft of that dataset, representing just a sliver of all of the social media response, underscored the amount of engagement that online platforms supported during the crisis. In the preliminary stages of coding the data, the team recognized just how much value social media brought to many facets of the recovery.

Social media was a key part of informing the community about the forecasts concerning the approach and ongoing severity of the rainfall, which were remarkable in their accuracy, they found. Social media was integral in organizing volunteering, federal assistance, resource distribution, cleanup and fundraising. It also played an important part in helping people understand road conditions and avoid danger while traveling.

As Brandt and Turner-McGrievy work through the data, they’re identifying organizations that exhibited highly effective use of social media during the flooding. One of the most prominent is the S.C. Emergency Management Division, which not only spread valuable information as it was needed, but also helped refute misinformation (such as the erroneous notion that the Lake Murray dam was at risk) as it arose on social media channels.

Looking at the disaster through a public health lens, the team is working to develop a guide to best practices along with documenting the social media response that accompanied last year’s disaster. An avid Twitter aficionado herself, Brandt (@BlondeScientist) wants the success she saw firsthand to propagate even further.

“My husband and I worked with the My Carolina Alumni Association during the recovery, and we used Facebook and Twitter to guide donations and deliveries,” Brandt says. “We would find somebody who said, ‘We need water, or we need this here.’ And I would reply and say we would be happy to help you, can you DM me a street address? And then we’d send a truck off with the supplies.

“That wouldn’t have happened maybe even five years ago. But it’s definitely happening now, so let’s figure out how we can use it most effectively.”

Learn more

The Office of the Vice President for Research is hosting a daylong conference showcasing research funded by the 2015 SC Floods Research Initiative. The Oct. 7 event starts with an 8:30 a.m. check-in at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center. It will feature scholarly oral and poster presentations from all of the 34 flood initiative research projects. Register for the free event at the SC Floods Conference website.

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