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How Twitter and a Drone Saved a Man and His Dog from Hurricane Matthew

From Twitter to personal drones, technology can act as a fail-safe in desperate situations.

by Joseph Cox
Oct 11 2016, 11:45am

Image: Shutterstock

Hart, a US Army veteran and documentary filmmaker, was flying his cinema drone over the devastation of Hurricane Matthew in Hope Mills, North Carolina. The hurricane had killed dozens, and where Hart was, houses had been completely flooded, leaving entire neighborhoods nearly unrecognizable.

"When I deployed the drone and got an aerial view of it, I was like, 'oh my gosh, this is devastating'," Hart, who said he has studied film in order to treat his PTSD, told me in a phone call. He flew his drone across what used to be a grassy cul de sac, which had turned into a brown lake with only the tops of houses peeking out from under the water.

As so many of us do almost unconsciously everyday, Hart shared what he saw on social media, and uploaded a photo from his drone's camera to both Twitter and Instagram. That photo would go on to show that while some technology designed to keep us safe has limitations, citizens have filled the void with publicly available tools, such as social media, to help each other.

The story might've ended there.

A screenshot of Hart's photo. Image: Hart/Instagram

Half way across the country, in Texas, cybersecurity researcher Craig Williams was worried about his brother, Chris, a Navy veteran. Chris was trapped in a house because of Hurricane Matthew, along with his dog.

Craig had tried for hours to warn emergency services that his brother was in danger.

"All the emergency services were non-functional, even weird nonpublic numbers buried on city [government] websites," Craig told me in a Twitter message. "Honestly I probably made over 60 phone calls, maybe 100: any number I could find starting with the ones with emergency in front," Craig said.

"It's interesting right: on [the] one hand, we have this 'super-reliable' legacy 911 system. What's the point of the reliability if it can't handle the load during an actual state of emergency?" Craig added. Of course, this whole time, it was easy enough to use instant messaging or another medium of communication, but not the dedicated emergency line.

Eventually, Craig found an obscure phone number that got him through: the after hours, call transfer number. He reported his brother's situation, but evacuation wasn't feasible yet.

Concerned that several dams were on the verge of bursting, Craig started scrolling through the hashtag #HopeMills, looking for anyone with information on the current water level affecting the area. He came across Hart's aerial photo of several totally flooded houses, and sent it to his brother, joking that at least it wasn't this bad.

"Apparently it was his house," Craig told me. "I honestly thought he was fucking with me. I mean, what are the chances."

Craig then tweeted at Hart, asking for help.

"Holy shit that's my brothers house..the one with one shutter. Any chance you can boat him out of there? He's trapped upstairs..," he wrote. Hart also thought the whole thing was part of a joke, wondering if Craig was just a troll, he told me.

The pair spoke on the phone a few times, and Hart flew his drone out to the house. Sure enough, there was someone still inside. Hart was then able to alert a passing Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) crew, who helped Chris, and his dog, out of the house.

Social media has acted as a fail-safe in many dire situations. Whether that's for protesters to coordinate their actions, or, in this case, to connect two complete strangers across the US who can then help someone in urgent need, the power of connectivity through platforms like Twitter is still only starting to show itself.

"This is something that the universe made happen: me tweeting that photo, using the hashtag, having the knowledge to even do that, and then his brother searching for and then finding that photo," Hart said.

The case also highlights how social media can even replace traditional systems for keeping people safe.

"Without the technology, who knows what could have happened," Craig said. "It amazes me that cities still do not have multiple redundancies for emergency services, and unfortunately if they do they are not communicated more widely." (The Hope Mills Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

Most of all, "it's bonkers," Craig said.

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