The logo of Facebook Inc. sits on an Apple Inc. iPhone smartphone in this arranged photograph. (Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg)

Facebook Positions Itself in Hurricane Path With Community Help Feature

(Bloomberg) -- After a relatively slow start to the 2018 season, three hurricanes are now churning in the Atlantic on potential tracks toward the U.S. east coast and the Caribbean. Ahead of Hurricane Florence’s projected landfall in North Carolina or South Carolina later this week, Facebook hosted a disaster response forum today in Miami, the city where only a year ago flood waters turned streets into rivers as Hurricane Irma ravaged the state, where it showed how its Community Help feature can support recovery efforts.

The service, which allows users to mark themselves as “safe” after a disaster to reassure concerned friends and family, is rolling out to Facebook’s Lite app after previously being available only in the traditional app or online. The Lite app is designed to allow people access to the social network in areas with low connectivity or limited internet -- handy in a hurricane when networks can fail -- and is available for Android phones in more than 100 countries.

When a user marks themselves safe, they can access a specific page where information about recovery efforts can be exchanged. That led Rachel Cooney Paxton of Houston to open her home to complete strangers after Hurricane Harvey devastated the city last year.

“People a lot of times hear the story, and say: ‘I don’t think I could do what you did,’” she commented at the event, saying she’d now developed a friendship with the family she hosted. “I immediately tell them that if you saw what I saw, you would.”

With the Facebook Lite expansion, the company could play an increasing role in more developed cities when communication networks become overwhelmed by a natural disaster, Facebook Crisis Response product manager Jeong-Suh Choi said. It can operate on older 2G networks if 3G or LTE fail, and uses less data.

Facebook has been beset by a tough year of headlines about its role in election meddling as well as concerns about stalling user growth that have weighed on its shares; proving its role as a helpful go-to place for information during emergencies could help offset some of these issues in the minds of users and investors.

“Facebook is a space for you to show and bring awareness to these things that are problematic,” Valencia Gunder, Miami-based founder of the nonprofit Make the Homeless Smile, said. She used the social network to coordinate support after Hurricane Irma last year, helping feed thousands. “When people were not responding, these large organizations were not showing up, I was on social media. I was on Facebook going live,” she said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.