Social media a vital tool in search for loved ones in Bahamas

Days after Hurricane Dorian left the Bahamas behind, the search for those feared missing is underway.

And since many in the storm-ravaged islands are without reliable cell service, and with little information from authorities, their loved ones have turned to crowdsourcing and social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp to look for them, share news, coordinate rescues and find community.

“If anyone has direct contact with the persons in Hope Town please message me,” read a recent comment on one Facebook group, Dorian People Search Bahamas. “I am still hoping to hear my brother’s voice.”

Some share photos of their loved ones and their last known locations, hoping someone will have seen them in the ensuing chaos. Many pleas for information go unanswered. But others are more hopeful.

“People were starting to ask questions and wondering where their loved ones are,” said Vanessa Pritchard-Ansell, who started the Facebook page Sunday night during the thick of the storm. “People were going to these pages and saying, ‘I’m looking for XYZ. This person is missing. I need to get in touch.'”

“Social media has helped save lives,” said Raevyn Bootle, a college student in Nassau who used WhatsApp to find her family members in Treasure Cay. “I don’t think that without it we could have gotten anybody out of there,” she said. “My mom, aunt, grandmother — I think they would be lost.”

Dozens of people have turned to social media and crowdsourcing. Here are the stories of two women who took action and made a difference.

WhatsApp gave her a sense of empowerment

Days after Hurricane Dorian lashed the Bahamas, Bootle, a college student in Nassau, still couldn’t reach her family on the island of Great Abaco.

The last time she heard from her mother, she was holed up in Treasure Cay with Bootle’s aunt and grandmother. As the storm bore down, Bootle’s mom texted her “Send help.”

Shortly after, cell service went out for most people on the island. Bootle couldn’t reach her mother or other family members. Communication with anyone in Treasure Cay was nearly impossible. Bootle and her sister, who live on the island of New Providence, were “completely terrified.”

“You’re worried,” Bootle told CNN. “You’re thinking, ‘Are they still trapped in the house? Are they going to get out? … Are they injured? Are they safe?’ You have no assessment of them.”

Eventually, frustrated with authorities and a slow trickle of information, Bootle, her sister and cousin started a WhatsApp chat group. They added every contact they had in Treasure Cay and anyone who might be related to them, whether they were in the Bahamas or the US, in hopes that people would share any sliver of news they had.

At first, there were about 40 people in the group, Bootle said. But it continued to grow.

A lot of information about Treasure Cay came from a family friend who was there with a satellite phone, Bootle said. Because of a communications glitch, he couldn’t call her directly but had to call his sister in St. Thomas, who then shared the news on her Facebook page. Bootle and others would then share that information in the WhatsApp group, sending it out to an even wider audience.

Bootle finally received a message from the family friend saying he’d seen Bootle’s mother, aunt and grandmother safe at a clinic. They reunited in Nassau on Thursday, Bootle said, and broke down into tears.

Bootle said that using WhatsApp was the only way she felt empowered to do something. Now she’s working to supply food, clothing and other supplies to people who made it off Treasure Cay.

“My grandma got here in just a night dress and had nothing else,” she said.

She wanted to provide a ‘human connection’

Pritchard-Ansell, who lives on the island of New Providence with her husband and 10-month-old daughter, has expanded her efforts beyond the Facebook group Bahamas People Search.

The group had more than 12,000 members by Saturday, with thousands of comments, and had outgrown the usefulness Facebook provided. The large amount of information needed to be better organized, she said.

Someone suggested she create a separate website to handle the influx of names, pictures, comments and status updates. In the next 48 hours, a small group of volunteers built and launched, which hosts a database of nearly 6,500 people, she said.

The website allows people to add the names of their missing loved ones, their location and their status.

The status of individuals can be marked as “known” or “unknown.” They can also mark them as “needs evacuation” or a “critical evacuation.” If someone is marked as needing a critical evacuation, that information is sent to Pritchard-Ansell and, if the person is an American, the US Consulate in the Bahamas, she said. The same goes for Canadian citizens.

Pritchard-Ansell explained that she didn’t want people to be marked “safe,” because that could mean different things to different people. She also didn’t want to include an option for “deceased.” That’s not how she’d want to find out somebody had died, she said.

If someone has information about a person on the list, they can update their status to “known,” provide the information and where they heard it. They have to leave their own name as it appears on Facebook, in case someone else is looking for the same person.

“That part is really important, she said. “Because it might give peace of mind to someone else,” she said.

Pritchard-Ansell said the storm stories — particularly those about young mothers like herself — hit her in the heart.

“I haven’t gone to bed a night this week without thinking what it would be like to go from one house that is completely immersed in water and trying to swim with my daughter to another house,” Pritchard-Ansell said. “Or literally trying to survive in the rafters of a house with a baby.”

The Facebook page and the website have obvious “practical” uses, Pritchard-Ansell said. But she also wanted to give people a sense of community and solidarity as they faced the agonizing prospect of locating their missing loved ones.

“I knew it would be important for that person searching for person A to connect with another person searching for person A,” she said. “I needed to establish that human connection and kind of safety net to help carry them through until they got word of status known.”