On Saturday night, Celine Benavides and her family were moving their possessions to the second floor of their home as the floodwaters rose in their First Ward neighborhood. By the following evening, the Los Angeles transplant watched as the waters came even closer, lapping up over the steps to her front door.
"Being from L.A., I thought, Well, earthquakes are worse!" she recalls thinking in the days leading up to Hurricane Harvey's landfall near Rockport. "But I did not expect it to be like this. I have seen rain before, but this is a different level." But by Monday, the nearby White Oak Bayou had drained enough to allow First Ward residents to leave their homes—and to allow her to take action.
Benavides, who moved to Houston in 2010 and works in IT at MD Anderson, posted a plea on Facebook to her friends and family back in L.A., and to the mommy groups she's become a tight-knit member of online. As a mother of a 2-year-old, she's especially sensitive to the expensive needs of parents with young children, and knew things like bottles, baby food, formula and diapers would be in high demand.
Before long, her Angeleno friends had donated $600 for Benavides to go to Target and purchase much-needed diapers and other baby supplies for area shelters, while a long-lost college friend offered his Target employee discount via direct message. The mommy groups, meanwhile, began sending in supplies from across Houston and across the country. In many cases, donations of expensive breast milk pumps and sanitizing bags were made by people whom she'd never even met in real life.
"I’m steaming and sanitizing and packaging them, and then delivering them to local shelters," says Benavides. "I’m getting donations from complete strangers." She laughs: "I probably shouldn’t be putting my address out there, but I wanted to cut out the middle man."
All over the city, people like Benavides are harnessing the power of social media to conduct evacuations and collect supplies for victims of Hurricane Harvey. Social platforms such as Facebook and MySpace were still in their nascency when tropical storm Allison and Hurricane Ike hit Houston in 2001 and 2008, respectively. During the events of Hurricane Harvey, however, social media has been instrumental in coordinating and connecting Houstonians on a never-before-seen level.
Local celebrities such as writer Shea Serrano used his huge Twitter reach to connect families in need of rescue with rescue boats, while members of Hackathon collective Sketch City created spreadsheets and maps of shelter locations and immediate donation needs. The Louisiana Cajun Navy conducted much of its rescue work via Facebook, while Houstonians everywhere used Instagram and Snapchat to document their situations for concerned family and friends watching from afar.
"It’s saved a lot of lives," says Benavides. "A very large percentage of Americans go to Facebook for their news, and even just sharing a story helps to project a level of empathy, especially for those who aren’t here and don’t see what’s going on."
For those not in Houston, finding ways to help out has been rough going; national charities like Red Cross aren't as nimble and immediately responsive as local non-profits or Houstonians, like Benavides, who are determined to make a difference first-hand. "I’ve been getting an overwhelming response from people in L.A., who really want to help Houston," she says. "I wanted to be that bridge between the people I could reach in L.A. to make their donations feel more personal."
When we spoke this afternoon, Benavides was momentarily refueling with lunch at the newly reopened Tacodeli on Washington Avenue, where she was still reeling at the powerful response she'd received from her Facebook mommy groups and friends back home in California. Then, it was back home to clean, sanitize and deliver still more supplies to mothers in need, all while keeping her Facebook friends updated on how their donations have made a difference here in her new home.
"I think that it really compels you to feel empathy for those families out there who’ve lost everything," she says. "There’s a lot of power in sharing a story or sharing an experience."