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 this week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) used Twitter to disseminate shelter information. And when a powerful earthquake rocked Mexico on Tuesday, the State Department tweeted an emergency message about how to call the United States embassy. After the explosion last week 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 organizations rely on social media to get out messages when their own websites are slow, as the National Hurricane Center’s was when it experienced overwhelming traffic 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 each other safe shelter.
The key to using Twitter and Facebook in travel emergencies is choosing the right people, groups and companies 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 even though it has nothing to do with the actual organization or individual you’re seeking. On Twitter, one way to know you’ve got the right account is to look for a blue verified badge, which indicates the account is authentic (although getting verified can take quite a while, so not every legitimate account has them). Facebook has gray verification badges. Another way to find what you’re looking for is to search for the desired person or organization online, like the Paris Tourist Office, and then connect to that organization’s social media account (@ParisJeTaime on Twitter; @p.infos on Facebook) from their official website.
You can follow your favorite 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, including crucial information during this busy hurricane season. 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. On Sept. 20, the National Weather Service retweeted @NWSSanJuan’s 7:17 a.m. message that the San Juan metro area would experience 115 mile-per-hour winds or higher for the next two to three hours. The service’s primary National Hurricane Center account is @NWSNHC.
Some meteorologists use their own accounts to offer perspectives on storms. During 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.”
The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (@CDCgov) posts health and safety updates. After Irma, it tweeted a link to its food and water safety guidelines, as well as home cleanup recommendations.
FEMA (@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, be it about planned protests or weather-related evacuations, at @TravelGov. For instance, this week, in advance of Hurricane Maria, it tweeted that United States 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. This week it retweeted @NotifyNYC, the city’s official emergency notification system, about a coastal flood warning in effect for Brooklyn and Queens, and has been posting about the effects of Hurricane Jose on New Yorkers.
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. In the Florida Keys, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office (@mcsonews) has posted links about hurricane recovery as well as curfew and checkpoint information. Following such accounts may also keep you up to date about areas that may have a heavier police presence or street closures.
Transportation and Lodging
On a national and international level, there are a variety of accounts to follow, including @Amtrak and @RailEurope, bus lines (like @GreyhoundBus and @MegaBus), cruise lines, such as Royal Caribbean (@RoyalCaribbean) and Norwegian Cruise Line (@CruiseNorwegian), 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 Monday @United tweeted that it was canceling some flights and offering travel waivers to and from San Juan, P.R. 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 program that helps people find temporary accommodations. For instance, this week it tweeted that it was using the program 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 there. Also consider following your favorite hotels. They can sometimes be sources of emergency information. More often it’s a way to stay in the loop about minor events, like renovations or a local marathon or celebration.
Booking sites like @Expedia and @Priceline also post relevant information in emergencies, and if you booked any part of your travel with them, you’ll want to stay abreast of changes. 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 Administration’s more useful Twitter account is @AskTSA, which answers questions, often about what can be packed in a carry-on bag.
You may also want to follow your local transportation organizations. For example, in New York City, useful accounts include the M.T.A. 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. Throughout Hurricane Irma, for instance, Monroe County, which includes the Florida Keys, has been diligently posting updates, including to its Facebook page (@MonroeCountyFLBOCC).
Not all government accounts are equally helpful, however. Sometimes tourism board accounts provide better or 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 Facebook (@CaribbeanTourismOrganization) and Twitter (@ctotourism) accounts.
Twitter Alerts, Facebook Safety Check and More
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 organizations (the Miami Herald and Orlando Sentinel were especially helpful during Irma).
Once you’re following a few reliable sources, you’ll find that in addition to posting their own information, they also post information from sources they trust. For instance, if you follow London Ambulance (@Ldn_Ambulance), you’re likely to also see tweets originally posted by the London Fire Brigade (@LondonFire) and Terrorism Police UK (@TerrorismPolice).
By Stephanie Rosenbloom