How to use Twitter and Facebook for emergency travel information

When an emergency strikes, networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, can be essential travel tools.
When an emergency strikes, networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, can be essential travel tools.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (NEW YORK TIMES) - You don’t have to like Twitter or Facebook, or even post to them, but when an emergency strikes, the networking sites can be essential travel tools. 

As Hurricane Maria neared the Caribbean, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) used Twitter to disseminate shelter information. And when an earthquake rocked Mexico, the State Department tweeted an emergency message about how to call the US Embassy. After the explosion at the Parsons Green subway station in London, the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, posted a statement on Facebook, confirming that the “bucket bomb” was being treated as terrorism. 

Sometimes, organisations rely on social media to get out messages when their own websites are slow, as the National Hurricane Center’s was during Hurricane Irma. Other times, ways to help organically bubble up on social media. In 2015, when Islamic State militants attacked Paris, people used the hashtag #PorteOuverte (“open door”) 
to offer one another safe shelter. 

The key to using Twitter and Facebook in emergencies is choosing the right entities to follow. Misinformation is common. So who to trust? 

Below, a beginner’s guide to finding the most helpful accounts.  A word of caution: Sometimes a social media account looks official, but it’s not. On Twitter, look for a blue verified badge, which indicates the account is authentic (although getting verified can take quite awhile, so not every legitimate account has them). Facebook has gray verification badges. Another way is to search for the desired person or organisation online, like the Paris Tourist Office, and then connect 
to that organisation’s social media account (@ParisJeTaime on Twitter; @p.infos on Facebook) from its official website. 

Weather

You can follow your favourite weather outlet, but if you want the latest from the horse’s mouth, follow the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service Twitter account, @NWS, which provides regular storm updates. You can also follow the service’s regional and related accounts, such as the National Weather Service San Juan (@NWSSanJuan) and the National Hurricane Center Atlantic Ops (@NHC–Atlantic), though @NWS often retweets the most important updates from those accounts. The primary National Hurricane Center account is @NWSNHC. 

Some meteorologists use their own accounts. During Hurricane Irma, Taylor Trogdon (@TTrogdon), a senior scientist with the Storm Surge Unit at the National Hurricane Center (@NHC–Surge), said on Twitter that when he looked at satellite imagery of the hurricane, he was “at a complete and utter loss for words”.

Safety

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (@CDCgov) posts health and safety updates. After Hurricane Irma, it tweeted a link to its food and water safety guidelines, as well as home cleanup recommendations. 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (@fema) provides information about what it’s doing before, during and after emergencies and 
how you may be able to get help. 

The State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs posts travel-related security messages at @TravelGov. For instance, in advance of Hurricane Maria, it tweeted that US citizens should leave Turks and Caicos, if possible. 

You may also want to follow your local office of emergency management. In New York City, for example, the Emergency Management feed is @nycoem. Local Fire and Police department feeds are also helpful. After the recent Parsons Green attack in London, the Metropolitan Police Service (@metpoliceuk) tweeted updates on the investigation and threat level changes. Following such accounts may also keep you up to date about areas that may have a heavier police presence or street closings. 

Transportation and Lodging

On a national and international level, accounts to follow include @Amtrak and @RailEurope, bus lines (like @GreyhoundBus and @MegaBus), cruise lines, car services, such as @Uber and @Lyft, and, of course, airports and airlines. Even if you fly only one airline, it can be useful to follow a few. For instance, on Sept 18, @United tweeted that it was cancelling some flights and offering travel waivers to and from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Even if you don’t fly United, their tweets might alert you to the possibility that your own carrier might take similar actions. 

Airbnb (@Airbnb and @AirbnbHelp) can be helpful even if you’re not a member. The company has a disaster response programme that helps people find temporary accommodations. For instance, recently it tweeted that it was using the programme to help people affected by the earthquake in Mexico, allowing Airbnb members 
to open homes for free to displaced neighbors and relief workers. 

When planning a visit to a city, consider following the airports, train stations, bus lines, tourism boards and embassies as well as your favourite hotels. They can sometimes be sources of emergency information. 

Booking sites like @Expedia and @Priceline also post relevant information in emergencies. The Transportation Security Administration’s main 
Twitter account is @TSA, though you won’t find much up-to-the-minute travel information. (For that, see the accounts in the categories below.) The agency’s more useful 
Twitter account is @AskTSA, which answers questions, often about what can be packed in a carry-on bag. 

In New York City, useful accounts include the MTA subway service (@NYCTSubway), the Taxi and Limousine Commission (@nyctaxi) and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (@PANYNJ). In some cities, like London, there’s a general Twitter account for Transport for London (@TfL), as well as for specific Tube lines, including the Central Line (@centralline) and Piccadilly Line (@piccadillyline). 

Local Government and Tourism Boards

Following local government accounts in your hometown, as well as those in the places you plan to travel to can also provide current information. Not all government accounts are equally helpful, however. Sometimes tourism board accounts provide more expansive information.  The Caribbean Tourism Organization has been a source of up-to-date information about Hurricane Irma’s effects on the islands on its accounts on Facebook (@CaribbeanTourismOrganization) and Twitter (@ctotourism).  

Twitter Alerts and Facebook Safety Check 

Use the Twitter Alerts feature for getting information during emergencies. You choose which individual accounts you want to receive alerts from, and if one of those accounts marks a tweet as an alert, you receive a notification on your mobile phone. (Alerts on your Twitter timeline appear with an orange bell.) 

In emergencies, Facebook activates its Safety Check tool, which prompts users to let their friends and family know they’re safe and to find or provide help to others. 

This list is merely a starter guide. There are many more useful places to turn, including travel agencies and bloggers. And of course you can follow news organisations (the Miami Herald and Orlando Sentinel were especially helpful during Irma).