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Be Careful With Hashtags During Natural Disasters

Sixteen years to the day since Hurricane Katrina made its cataclysmic landfall in Louisiana, Hurricane Ida struck New Orleans on Sunday. Winds of 150 mph toppled power lines and ripped roofs off buildings, including the Lady of the Sea hospital. As of Monday morning, one million people in Louisiana — including all of New Orleans — are without power due to Hurricane Ida’s landfall. At least one person has died due to the storm.

Amid the unfolding chaos, crisis management experts have issued an urgent warning: Do not use any hashtags associated with a natural disaster unless you’re using them to share resources or ask for help. During hurricanes, earthquakes, typhoons, and other crises, social media can be an essential source of support for those struggling to get help. Those on the ground may be affected by downed power grids and shelter-in-place orders, so it’s important to keep other lines of communication clear.

“In the middle of a response there is a lot of information lying around,” disasterologist Samantha Montano tells Teen Vogue. “Some of that information is really useful to the people who are experiencing the disaster,” including information about evacuation orders and where to find shelter. The #HurricaneIda hashtag, for example, has become a hotspot for providing rescue information and requests for rescue.

But, Montano continues, “there is also a lot of information that is simply updates about damages or commentary about the disaster. On social media it can be really difficult to filter through all of that information in the moment. One thing that people can do to help minimize the noise and elevate life-saving information is to stay off of the hashtags.”

As the climate crisis accelerates, certain parts of the country, including the Gulf Coast, are becoming sites for more frequent — and more severe — environmental disasters. The Gulf Coast region is prone to hurricanes and severe flooding; it’s also home to a big part of the nation’s petrochemical industry, meaning storms sometimes cause toxic industrial wastewater to leak into local waterways and neighborhoods.

The fallout from these disasters is made worse by crumbling infrastructure that leaves residents vulnerable to power outages. Texas’s power grid failed during Winter Storm Uri in February, leaving people to burn furniture to try to keep warm amid icy temperatures. In Louisiana, Ida’s strength took down 911 centers. The New Orleans Police Department asked residents to stay in their homes, citing the danger of downed power lines and other debris created by the storm. And the power company announced that it may take days to calculate the damage to the power grid.

The pandemic is also complicating responses to events like Hurricane Ida and the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti on August 14, which destroyed hospitals and slowed the country’s vaccine rollout. In Louisiana, COVID cases, including pediatric ones, were already stretching the capacities of hospitals and health-care workers in the state. Neighboring states like Mississippi and Alabama, also in Ida’s path, are strapped under the weight of the coronavirus too.

We’ve seen how natural disasters lead to disruption, displacement, and death over and over again. Allowing those in the path of danger to use the limited tools at their disposal to reach safety remains critical.

If you’re looking for more ways to help, Montano summarizes some options for Teen Vogue: Donating, volunteering, and voting are all a great place to start.

Want more from Teen Vogue? Check this out: What Is Necropolitics? The Political Calculation of Life and Death

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