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Federal Authorities Missed Nearly Half of Social Media Distress Calls during Harvey

After Harvey, FEMA used rescue requests to map the extent of flooding. Researchers at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research found the agency overlooked thousands of such requests posted on Twitter.

A rescue done by volunteers at the Lakewood Forest subdivision, located in northwest Houston, on Aug. 28, 2017

A year ago, Harvey taxed Greater Houston’s 911 system to its limits. Many residents turned to Twitter and other social media to call for help. But a new Rice University study shows federal authorities missed much of that critical information.

Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research tracked more than one million tweets from August 25 through September 8, 2017 and found some 5,200 rescue requests. The researchers learned FEMA missed 46 percent of those requests. As a result, FEMA’s post-disaster analysis listed many areas as safe that actually flooded.

“This information was available,” says Carlos Villegas, a Kinder Institute staff researcher and co-author of the report. “The next disaster – God forbid, the next one comes – we shouldn’t be thinking about this kind of stuff when it happens. We should be thinking about it now and setting up systems, so we can get this information as it’s being disseminated, as it’s being tweeted, as people are asking for rescues.”

Villegas says he hopes, even if FEMA doesn’t make use of the information, that local and regional governments will.

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Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media’s coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas delegations in the U.S. House and Senate, as well as the Texas governorship, the state legislature, and county and city governments. Before taking up his current post, Andrew...

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