The passing of Hurricane Patricia through Mexico – as told by hashtags

#Patricia started shyly trending in Mexico on Wednesday, October 21st, when it was simply one more tropical storm in the 2015 Pacific hurricane season.

By the end of the day it was 49th on the list of Twitter trending topics among Mexican users – who like many people around the world were busy celebrating #BackToTheFutureDay.

In the days that followed, however, the storm evolved into a terrifying category 5 hurricane that hit Mexico late on Friday, October 23, generating all kinds of interest, as the following graph from Google Trends shows:

hurricane patricia google trends - Spanish

Google search for terms linked to Patricia in Spanish: tropical storm (blue) and hurricane (red). Info: Google Trends.

These are some of the highlights of what happened on social media during the hurricane days:

Government agencies choose Twitter

The social networking site chosen by the Mexican government to keep the people informed was Twitter – an interesting decision in a country with more than 44 million Facebook users, and only 8 million users of Twitter.

In a tweet posted on the President’s Office official account, the government encouraged the public to follow these accounts on Twitter:

They also suggested the use of the hashtags #huracan (hurricane) and #patricia.

The accounts of the regional offices of the abovementioned agencies were used to inform on issues of local relevance in the states likely to be hit by the hurricane:

Step-by-step instructions were also provided to teach the public how to activate Twitter Alerts:

create a twitter account hurricane patricia mx

“Create a Twitter account, or sign in if you already have one,” reads step 1 of this guide to learn how to activate Twitter Alerts.

The hurricane from every possible angle

The amount and variety of information posted by social media users helped to draw a comprehensive picture of the storm and its impact from many points of view.

From space

Images from space were made available by an astronaut at the International Space Station, who shared a few pictures of the hurricane in his personal account:

NASA posted footage of the hurricane on Twitter and Facebook…

…and other related updates, including this one:

From the inside

Another unique perspective – from inside the storm – was provided by the hurricane hunters of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who flew through the eye wall of the hurricane.

One of the engineers taking part in the operation posted the video on his Facebook page.

pilot Joseph Diane Klippel

 

The video was later re-posted on YouTube by other users, where it had more than half a million views by the time of writing.

From the ground

Still images and video captured with webcams located in different parts of the country were shared on @WebcamsdeMexico, the Twitter account of a website that gave users access to real time video of the situation.

This time lapse posted on their YouTube account shows in only 1 minute what happened along the 24 hours of the day the hurricane made landfall in a coastal city.

A few users of Periscope contributed video streaming of the hurricane as well. Some of the viewers posted comments on what they’d seen…

…while others warned people about the dangers of periscoping a hurricane:

Vine users were not very prolific. Many posts recycled material from other sources (television, other social sites, etc.).

Some vines are eyewitness testimony of the events, while others were visibly made just to kill time and/or joke about what was happening.

This one titled “Expectations vs. Reality” reflects the opinion of a vast group of people who thought that the predictions about the effects of the hurricane may have been blown out of proportion.

You can watch more Patricia vines here.

Instagrammers were more active, posting not only pictures and video, but also a considerable amount of pictures with social awareness captions inviting people to pray for Mexico, or to protect their pets and/or give shelter to street animals during the storm. This account was especially created to compile material linked to the hurricane.

From abroad

Mexicans also got messages of solidarity directly from government officials and celebrities that used social media to convey their support:

Note how the person who handles the official Twitter account of the British PM used a hashtag in Spanish:

The list of people who sent their good wishes includes Larry King, Slash, Hillary Clinton, and Jeffret Wright.

From where things didn’t happen

“The strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere” sounds like a text book definition of the kind of event that doesn’t need to be exaggerated to do well in social media. But the Internet is full of surprises…

Many people shared pictures of Typhoon Mysak (a super storm that made headlines back in March) as if they were pictures of Patricia.

The following is one of many examples of the photo albums shared – although this may be of the ones with the highest reach.

This old picture of a water spout circulated again, as has happened over the last few years when people are trying to impress their contacts with relics from their “scary hurricane picture” archive.

Other uses of social media

Other highlights in the use of social media were people’s complaints about the coverage of the events by the mainstream media; a cyber-clash around hate messages targeting the potential victims of the natural disaster; the use of Facebook Safety Check; and the debate around whether the occasion was appropriate or not to be posting memes.

Social vs Mainstream

Many users tweeted their dissatisfaction regarding the work of the mainstream media and the excessive attention devoted to tourists’ evacuation and safety, as summarized in these tweets:

You can read many other similar statements here.

Facebook Safety Check for Patricia

Although the hurricane was not as devastating as expected, many people welcomed the activation of Facebook’s Safety Check function, that lets users report that they and/or their friends and families are out of danger.

The initiative deserved more than one message of appreciation.

Hate-tags

Hate comments on Twitter gave rise to a clash between supporters of the hashtag #Adiosindigenasdecolima (#GoodByeIndigenousPeopleFromColima), and people who thought wishing the extermination of an ethnic group was unacceptable.

“Nobody is going to miss you”, wrote this user, who may have been the first to use the hashtag:

…while many others defended the group being attacked:

Read more of these tweets here (many in Spanish).

Memefication

There was also some debate around the appropriateness of posting memes and jokes at a time of danger.

Many thought it was a good opportunity to play with images of late Mexican masked wrestler Huracan Ramirez (whose ring name means “Hurricane” in Spanish):

hurricane memes luchador

Captions from left to right (1) This is the Hurricane’s current position, (2) The Hurricane’s gone stray! (3) We can clearly see the eye of the Hurricane here.

The aftermath

Social media has changed the way we experience natural disasters. Not only has it proved to be a valuable tool to enhance awareness during emergencies, or to identify trends through the analysis of bulks of feeds to support decision making processes during resilience, it is also helping to document these events in an unprecedented manner.

It’s hard to tell how much the use of social media sites contributed to the outcome of zero deaths reported by Mexican authorities after Hurricane Patricia. Perhaps going deeper into some of the areas outlined here could shed some light on the prospects of disaster mitigation in the era of social media networking.

 

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