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Broward County Community Emergency Response Team volunteers knocking on doors offering help for the elderly as Hurricane Irma approaches Florida.
USA TODAY

SAN FRANCISCO — Some 1,600 miles from Houston, in West Milford, New Jersey, Nikki Arata woke up to urgent pleas for help on Facebook from three friends trapped in their ranch home by Hurricane Harvey.

They had stripped down to bathing suits as the mucky water climbed dangerously higher, from one inch at 1 AM to over 6 feet at 8 AM. Their three dogs were floating on couch cushions and mattresses. It was clear that if they stayed there much longer, no one would make it.

“The only thing I knew that could help them was to share it and get the word out to as many people as I could,” said Arata, who began frantically posting on her Facebook page and in a Facebook group for fellow wine guides that had thousands of members.

Offers of assistance rushed in, coming from all over the country and even from people she didn’t know.

Help couldn’t come soon enough. Rising floodwaters had forced Arata’s friends Mary Nendza, fiancé Kris Atkinson and his brother Matt onto their drenched rooftop in the pounding rain. They had few belongings, a bit of kibble for the dogs and a bag of candy and some insulin for Kris, who is diabetic.

As darkness spread across late afternoon skies, fear gripped Nendza. Her fiance’s head ached, his body was shaking and they couldn’t check his blood sugar levels. They had been stranded on the roof for seven hours.

Then at 3:56 PM came the text from Arata: “Rescue is coming!! 2 miles away!!” Within minutes a helicopter lowered a basket to pluck Arata’s friends to safety.

“It was the power of social media,” says Nendza. She believes the network of people Arata organized on Facebook helped speed rescuers to their location. “Within another hour or two Kris would have needed sugar and we would have had a very serious medical emergency.”

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