Thousands of houses in New Orleans were still under water a week after Hurricane Katrina barrelled through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama in this Sept. 5, 2005, photo. (Allen Fredrickson/Reuters)

When Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans in 2005, social media was truly in its infancy. Twitter didn’t exist and Facebook wasn’t even a year old.

The lack of this mode of communication at a time when the need for information was vital raises the tantalizing question: What if social networks were as vibrant and ubiquitous then as they are today? Would they have saved lives?  I believe they would have, maybe in significant numbers.

In the days leading up to Katrina, any meteorologist knew New Orleans was in serious danger.  The fact that a major hurricane striking New Orleans could result in thousands of casualties was well-established. For example, the New Orleans Times-Picayune had written a five-part series about the city’s acute vulnerability.

As an independent blogger at the time (writing for CapitalWeather.com, Capital Weather Gang’s predecessor), I wrote 48 hours before the storm made landfall: “the potential is there for one of the worst weather catastrophes or catastrophes of any sort on U.S. soil in decades.”  Twelve hours later, I wrote: “It’s possible there has never been a storm as threatening in modern U.S. history in terms of its potential toll on life, property and the environment.”

[Ten years after Katrina: The science behind the most damaging hurricane in U.S. history]

In today’s social media climate, the echo chamber about how grave a threat Katrina posed would have been deafening.  The hype would have appropriately blown through the roof and preparedness messages would have spread like wildfire.  For example, the National Weather Service’s most dire weather forecast ever issued, which warned that “most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks … perhaps longer,” would have achieved incomparable reach.  Perhaps it would have motivated a more urgent evacuation effort.

(National Weather Service)
(National Weather Service)

In other words, the messages about how severe this storm was and the importance of preparedness would have permeated much of society. National and local politicians and decisionmakers could not have been insulated from the message nor could the general public.  Crucially, many of them would have been motivated to share this information with their networks and add personal appeals to action, much like New Jersey Gov.  Chris Christie did during Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Sandy offers a great case example of the kind of influence social media might have had during Katrina.  VatorNews published an analysis which showed Sandy dominated the social media conversation in the days before, during and after the storm:

According to analytics firm Topsy, over 3.2 million Tweets with the hashtag #sandy were sent in 24 hours. [During the week of Sandy], 11 million Tweets were sent.

On photo-sharing website Instagram, people posted 10 pictures of the hurricane every single second during the height of the storm.

On Facebook, all of the top ten search terms were about Sandy during the height of the storm, and in the aftermath.

While it was going on, some of the top terms included “stay safe / be safe,” “prayers / praying,” and “my friends.”

After the storm, terms like “we are ok,” “hope everyone is ok,” and “made it” took the top spots.

It is true that these message wouldn’t have made it to everyone, including some of the elderly, the poor (without access to information technology), the sick  and the socially isolated.  Reaching these vulnerable populations is the most difficult challenge in any preparedness and response effort.  But social media certainly wouldn’t have hurt.

Some correctly point out that in the storm’s aftermath, the impact of social media would have been quashed by mobile technology outages.  “[W]e know that voice calls become impossible and bandwidth becomes restricted during every emergency,” writes Weather Channel hurricane expert Bryan Norcross, who smartly challenges coastal residents to imagine being cut off from communication and to develop a storm emergency plan. “We know our ability to communicate during and after a major hurricane is dramatically diminished.”

But even so, some information would have flowed around the clogs post-Katrina, and New Orleans’ dire situation would have more hastily reached the masses in the social media age.  As Tim Luege writes on the blog Social Media for Good:

I’d … like to think that social media would have improved situational awareness for emergency responders, such as the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). A week after the storm, FEMA director Michael Brown said that the agency had not known that evacuees had been stranded without food and water in the New Orleans Convention Center until he saw news reports.

Given the pervasiveness of social media, crisismapping and crowdsourcing platforms, I find it inconceivable that the same information vacuum could exist in a major city in a highly developed country today.

As coastal development and populations grow, and we become more exposed to natural disasters, we should be glad social media technologies exist and are growing in usage.  We’ll all be better prepared and ready for the next disaster as a result.

(Thanks to Capital Weather Gang reader 125WMARION for raising this important question Thursday.)

More Katrina from The Washington Post

Ten years after Katrina: The monster hurricane in 10 terrifying images

The thing that people too often forget about Hurricane Katrina

The remarkable racial divide in the days after Hurricane Katrina

Aerial images show the slow return of the Lower Ninth Ward

On Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, what was lost and gained from Katrina’s fury

What we’ve learned about hurricanes and climate change since Katrina

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Turkey Creek, Miss., the town where nobody died in Katrina

What Hurricane Katrina has taught us about ‘post-traumatic growth’

White people in New Orleans say they’re better off after Katrina. Black people don’t.

A decade into the Katrina diaspora

A Katrina hero: He hopped into a boat and became a one-man rescue squad

Decimated by Katrina, a city still rebuilding (Video)

The last time I saw my mother

The last time I saw my mother