Skip to Content


Disaster response has always included both formal organizations, such as the Red Cross, National Guard, and municipal police, fire, and emergency medicine teams, and informal groups, such as neighbors, families, and community or social clubs. In the case of Hurricane Harvey, however,new social media platforms allowed an unprecedented level of coordination among ad hoc or informal disaster responders exemplified by #RedNeckNavy and @CajunNavyRelief that blurred the lines between paid and volunteer responders. These emergent response organizations are typically characterized by fluid memberships, dispersed leadership, and unstable task definitions. While these decentralized attributes may be at odds with official responders, their grassroots, flexible, and locally-informed expertise represents an important source of community resilience. The increasing importance of social media in emergency response organizations presents a serious challenge to existing approaches to planning for and understanding resilience, because these organizations are not created through formal procedures, official assignment of membership, or legal entitlement. Rather, they are constituted through communication among individuals with shared goals. This research fills a critical national need related to disaster response by applying the military doctrine of "command and control" to examine the allocation of decision rights, patterns of communication, and access to information in the use of social media to organize the volunteer response to Hurricane Harvey. The research has the potential to improve the effectiveness of emergency response, thereby saving lives and hastening recovery from disasters.

The goal of this project is to understand the role of emergent response organizations in mitigating disaster risks during the Hurricane Harvey relief effort. To achieve this goal, the research team explores the development and subsequent role of emergent, volunteer response organizations like #RedNeckNavy in the disaster relief effort. Such organizations were constituted by communication on social media platforms such as Twitter and Zello. The team uses a mixed-methods approach to understand how these organizations used social media platforms to establish three organizational dynamics that translated into successful disaster relief action on the ground: distribution of information, patterns of interaction, and allocation of decision rights. Such organizational dynamics did not exist a priori in regard to the hurricane. Each process was created and substantiated through members' communication practices. The research includes social media scraping, linguistic analysis, and data visualization tools to identify the most influential members of the online community and the ways in which the three dynamics listed above came into being and changed during the relief effort. Because the scholars also seek to understand how organizational members made meaning of events, the researchers combine quantitative data analytics with qualitative interviews, participant observation, and focus groups of the influential emergent organization members. The meaning making constructs and orientations present among emergent response organizations contributes to understanding how and why some organizations make meaning of threats and crises as debilitating, where others are capable of overcoming threats in favor of response and recovery. Given the leadership role of military organizations like the US Coast Guard, National Guard, and US Army Corps in response to natural catastrophes and the pervasive military metaphors which inform the culture of these organizations, the researchers adapt the military doctrine known as "Command and Control" to describe the levels of organizational maturity extant in social media-enabled emergent response organizations and to characterize their internal and external communicative practices, particularly as compared to those of the more formal, federal and municipal organizations present, such as FEMA and the Red Cross. The results of this research will contribute to improved response technologies and better integration of community-based, ad hoc, and emergent organizations with formal response efforts.



National Science Foundation, Division of Social and Economic Science


January 2018 — December 2018