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Search data reveals people turn to the Internet in crises

People often share stories with us about the ways the Internet has helped them during natural disasters. Whether it’s accessing information about the event, communicating with loved ones during a crisis or finding out how to help respond in the aftermath, the web plays a valuable role.

We looked up some statistics from our search data for several natural disasters to get insights into this phenomenon. We see two consistent trends in search behavior and internet use in the affected areas: a substantial (and often dominant) proportion of searches are directly related to the crises; and people continue to search and access information online even while traffic and search levels drop temporarily during and immediately following the crises. While in some cases internet access is restricted due to infrastructure failures, generally Internet Service Providers continue to provide connectivity and users take advantage of it. The findings show just how resilient the internet can be in times of crises, compared to other infrastructure.

We expect these trends will continue, and to a great extent this drives the ongoing work of the Google Crisis Response team to improve the information available on the 'net during crises.

Joplin Tornado, Joplin, MO, USA, May 2011
The week of this year’s tornadoes in Joplin, Missouri, searches for terms related to help, safety and recovery were significantly up from normal levels. [Disaster relief] was 2054 percent greater than normal and [FEMA], [American Red Cross], and [National Weather Service] showed increases of 400-1000%. Despite the tragedy, in which 25 percent of the town was destroyed and 75 percent damaged, we still saw search traffic at 58 percent of normal levels the day of the tornado, and an immediate recovery toward normal Internet traffic occured within a day of the event.

Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, LA, USA, August 2005
During Hurricane Katrina, one of the largest U.S. disasters in recent memory, terms like [new orleans], [hurricane] and [katrina] topped search queries while search queries for resource providers like FEMA and the American Red Cross grew the fastest, according to our data. Even as 90% of the population was evacuated from New Orleans, we still saw search traffic at more than 50 percent of normal in Louisiana and 20% of normal in New Orleans, based on the previous five-day average.

The Internet has proven to be an essential resource during natural disasters internationally as well.

Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, Northern Coast, Japan, March, 2011
During the Japan earthquake and tsunami, searches for earthquake information and impacts including terms like [outage], [tokyo electric power] and [rolling blackouts] gew the fasted and also topped the list of most searched queries across Japan. In fact, even in the hardest hit areas, where mobile and landline communications were disrupted, Internet services were largely unaffected. During this time, people entered 620,000 records into Google Person Finder, a tool developed by the Google Crisis Response team to help people find missing friends and loved ones in the aftermath of such disasters.

Chile Earthquake, Maule Chile, February 2010
Immediately following the earthquake, people searching online were actively looking for earthquake information; earthquake and news source search terms became eight of the top 10 queries. [Terremoto] was the most searched term, and two online news sources, Terra and Emol, and the National Office for Emergencies [onemi] also appeared as top keywords. While there was no search traffic for 15 minutes after the earthquake, within one day searches had recovered to 25 percent of normal traffic, and search traffic returned to pre-earthquake levels within just four days.

Haiti Earthquake, Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, January 2010
The month of the Haiti earthquake, [seisme]—or “earthquake”—was the fastest-growing search term, and it continued its surface as a frequently searched term for almost two months after the earthquake. In the capital city of Port-Au-Prince, at the center of the earthquake, search traffic stopped momentarily, but did not completely disappear even when the three submarine Internet cables were cut as a result of the earthquake. As outlined by this U.S. Department of Homeland Security Communications Summary, Internet Service Providers were able to quickly reroute connections through a microwave relay wireless communication between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. This allowed traffic to return to rise within one day, and reach normal levels within a few months, despite ongoing damage to the city and country’s infrastructure.

We’re excited about continuing our work to create and support products that make the Internet even more useful to people looking for information and communication during crises.

Ryan Falor, Crisis Response Product Manager

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