Rumor Has It: How Misinformation Spread During Hurricane Harvey

In Beaumont, officials worked to quash untrue, but scary stories, as they battled the storm.

By Michael MarksSeptember 15, 2017 10:52 am|

You probably remembers playing ‘telephone’ as a kid. You sit in a circle, pass a message around, and see how it comes out on the other end. But during an emergency, when new information comes fast, lives are at stake, and normal lines of communication get disrupted – two cans on a string might be a better analogy than a phone. During Hurricane Harvey, information was scarce, and what people did find out was often wrong, and fueled by fear – creating a high-pressure version of the telephone game.

Most people in Harvey’s path experienced a few stressful, hectic days. But that may be truer for Matthew Fortenberry than for most. He directs the City of Beaumont’s Animal Care Services division. He’s been there for over two decades, working his way to the top. When Harvey hit, Fortenberry spent his days rescuing pets from flooded houses, taking care of them and connecting them with owners. On top of that, his own house was flooded.

“We had, depending on what room you’re in, anywhere from about three feet, to four and a half, to five feet in the bathroom and one of the bedrooms. But it was in every room of the house,” Fortenberry says.

The house is now gutted, just like most of his neighbors’ homes.

Between long hours rescuing animals, and keeping tabs on his family’s property, Fortenberry had his hands full. The last thing he needed was the call he got during the thick of the rescue effort from the city’s emergency management office.

“We hadn’t heard anything until they called us and said, ‘Hey on social media there’s going a rumor around that animal services is picking up all the rescued animals and just putting them down.’ Which that was just totally false,” Fortenberry says.

The rumor reveals the challenges of communicating during a catastrophe. But if it’s false, then where did it come from? That’s tough to say, but one way it spread was through someone who was just trying to help.

“I did not see any evidence of euthanizing dogs. It would have been very difficult for them to hide euthanasia at that facility,” says Jennifer Sprague, a veterinarian from Pipe Creek, outside San Antonio.

She and Tom Vaccarella run Safe K9 Transports, a company that moves dogs from shelters where they may be euthanized to places with fewer dogs, where they may find a home.

Sprague and Vaccarella went to southeast Texas to help animals that were in harm’s way. They saved and cared for hundreds of animals, bringing a lot of them to Ford Park in Beaumont. It’s an enormous event space that usually hosts concerts and sporting events, but animals were brought there during the storm. Vacarrella had filmed Facebook Live videos during the entire journey. He recorded one at Ford Park.

In one section, he pans over empty dog crates:

“If you look over there, all those crates are empty. Or at least most of them are, there’s some dogs in them,” Vacarrella narrates.

He went on to comment about how he didn’t see many pit bulls in the facility. But that was it. No claims of euthanasia. On Facebook though, people shared the video, and posted these comments to the contrary.

The City of Beaumont and the Houston SPCA, which ran the animal operation at Ford Park at the time, both said that no animals were unnecessarily euthanized during the storm. And Sprague backed that up.

“I tried to quash it as much as I could,” she says. “I tried to say look, I haven’t seen evidence of it. And Tom even came out on a couple other meetings with them, they promised me that’s not happening, it would be very difficult for it to be done here.”

But her efforts had little effect on the online outrage.

And that was far from the only rumor flying around in Harvey’s wake. As the waters rose in Beaumont, the Jefferson County morgue received more and more calls about missing persons. During one of the calls, there was a miscommunication between a volunteer phone worker at the morgue and a local TV station.

“Apparently, the worker was asked ‘Are there a lot of unidentified persons at the morgue?’ And she said something along the lines of ‘This is significant.’ But she didn’t give an actual number. That got reported as ‘There is a significant number of unidentified persons at the morgue,” says Jon Ralston, the chief forensic pathologist at the morgue.

Again, a game of telephone. Luckily the report’s reach was limited, and the station quickly issued a correction.

“If it had caused a lot of people to panic and assume they had a lot of unidentified individuals at the morgue,” Ralston says “that could have led to number one stress on families with missing persons, as well as overloading us with calls asking ‘Do you have my dear beloved so-and-so?’”

This is familiar territory to Scott Wheat. Although he’d never seen anything quite like Harvey, he’s no stranger to emergencies. Wheat is a district chief with the Beaumont Fire and Rescue Service. He has worked there for 23 years.

When Wheat was alerted to a viral Facebook post claiming that water in southeast Texas had tested positive for Typhoid, MRSA, and flesh-eating bacteria, that people had already become violently ill from exposure to the water, and those who spent time in it should get to a hospital immediately, he knew what to do.

“We checked with the health department, we checked with the hospitals, we checked with the field hospitals that were setup,” Wheat says. “And there were zero reports of any of those types of diseases or illnesses or ailments.”

It’s worth noting that earlier this week, the New York Times reported that flood waters in Houston contained bacteria that could cause illnesses. So far, emergency management officials in Beaumont are not aware of any cases of waterborne illness. And the rumor itself can be damaging enough.

“It’s so important to correct that false information because you can create a state of panic. Panic can lead to more catastrophes, like a catastrophe within a catastrophe,” Wheat says.

And that panic may not be outwardly evident. Like so much of our lives, it can be small and private, flickering on a screen. But the fear that it instills – fear of something that is not real – can create a crisis in and of itself. It can distract from the real catastrophe happening outside our door.