Jessica Ryan
Jessica Ryan

Last Wednesday, I was on day three of an attempted social media cleanse when I started hearing sirens. It had been raining a lot, and I was in a garden level apartment a few blocks from the creek. I immediately abandoned the cleanse and opened Twitter. As I woke up in a neighbor's apartment the next day, mine having flooded, I was inundated with Facebook messages from friends around the world asking if I was OK.

After trying to figure out what to do over the next few days, a woman I've only ever talked to on social media messaged me, saying she and her husband would come to Boulder to do whatever they could to help.

I know I've written a lot about social media lately, but the events of this past week have made their importance even more obvious to me. Social media has played a key role in disasters the past few years, from fires to tornadoes and now floods. There are even people who are specialists in social media in emergency management, or #smem.

Sites like Facebook and Twitter helped people get critical information, like evacuation center locations, road closures and ways to help. Government officials, journalists and members of the public shared what they saw, gave instructions and asked questions.

People shared photos of their family and friends being airlifted out of places they'd been trapped. They shared their requests for help, which were often immediately met by offers. People used (and continue to use) social media to organize relief efforts.

I was talking to my mom about the last "100-year-flood," in the Big Thompson Canyon in 1976. She said it's amazing how much has changed since then. How my grandparents, who were having dinner in the canyon that night, didn't have cell phones to call my mom's babysitter and tell her they were OK. How the people who evacuated to a middle school I would later attend didn't have a stream of Tweets telling them where to go.

But as I sit here writing this column, I can hear helicopters overhead. People are still stranded, without food or water or power — and definitely without social media. Social media has definitely changed the way we respond to natural disasters, but some things have remained the same. As we all work to recover, consider putting down your phones and laptops and picking up some volunteer shifts instead.

Jessica Ryan is a community manager and CU grad. She writes about nerdy things once a week for the Colorado Daily. On Twitter: @JessicaLRyan.