Social media a useful tool during disaster

Trey Duhon, a Waller County attorney, talks about using social media to share information about a wildfire. He spoke Thursday at the MidCoast Hurricane Conference.
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With wildfires raging around him and frustrated by the lack of information from official sources, Trey Duhon took action.

The Waller County lawyer turned to Facebook, creating a page to receive and disseminate information during the 10-day Riley Road wildfire that burned more than 10,000 acres last September.

Duhon, and his wife Jennifer Duhon, were the keynote speakers at Thursday's annual MidCoast Hurricane Conference hosted by the American Red Cross Crossroads Chapter.

Jennifer Duhon spoke via Skype from Switzerland.

She was the acting public information officer for Waller County during the wildfire, while Trey manned the Facebook page that exploded with activity.

"It became a real powerful medium," Duhon said. "I would post and things would happen immediately."

Jennifer was asked to assist the county with public information from the disaster command center. She had some crisis communication experience through her work with Shell.

Jennifer had originally used Twitter to learn more about the wildfire spreading in neighboring counties and continued to use the social media throughout the event.

"The one thing that got our angst up was that as the fire began to grow, there was no information coming from official sources," Jennifer said.

Duhon admitted that he is not a disaster expert.

"I am not a first responder. I have nothing to do with disaster response," he told those assembled at the Victoria Community Center. "But Jennifer and I did team up to do some things during the Riley Road fire that we all can learn from. And it has a lot to do with just creating a Facebook page."

Duhon found a Montgomery County Fire Info Facebook page and ran with that idea for Waller County.

"All the resources in Waller County were dedicated to fighting the fire. So on day two of the fire, I decided to set up a Facebook page for Waller County," Duhon said.

By week's end, more than 12,000 people had clicked on "Like" on the page and it had more than 32,000 active users. Statistics also show that the page had more than 7.2 million post views.

"I spent a lot of time keeping people calm," Duhon said.

As the page's activity grew, he recruited help from neighbors and friends.

"At one point, we had four laptops around our kitchen table. That was our command center for our Facebook page," said Duhon.

His wife said what Duhon was experiencing on Facebook was what they were experiencing live at the emergency command center.

The Duhons' keynote presentation was part of the training provided at the annual hurricane conference.

More than 270 people attended the conference, taking part in not only hurricane-related seminars and workshops, but also tracks designed specifically for business owners and for homeowners.

"We saw a lot of new faces that we haven't seen before at past conferences," said John Johnston, Red Cross board vice-chairman who served on the conference planning committee.

Norma Crockett, emergency management coordinator for Health Force, a Victoria home health agency, said she has attended three of the conferences.

"I was most interested in the business track," Crockett said. "I also sat in on a first responder session. It was very interesting."

Duhon hopes their presentation opens some eyes among governmental entities and disaster responders.

"The technology is out there. It's what people turn to. They have to know now," he said. "Social media is the way they get that information. You either embrace it or deal with the aftermath of not doing so."

"What happened in Waller County shows how useful it can be as a highly effective tool during a disaster."

John Metz, of the National Weather Service, gave the conference's closing message.