Once again, social media played a key role in reporting and distributing information during a crisis. In the wake of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake off Japan, communities around the Pacific Rim braced themselves for the inevitable tsunami waves.
In Hawaii, the “#hitsunami” hashtag aggregated thousands of posts from news media, government officials, and everyday citizens. Among the reports were updates on evacuation efforts, conditions at local stores and gas stations, and updated wave-height readings as the tsunami traveled across thousands of miles of ocean.
And mixed with the news were ongoing reactions to, and commentary on, the work of government leaders (Neil Abercrombie was late to emerge, but reiterated the most important messages) and the performance of local media (Brooks Baehr of HawaiiNewsNow got kudos, Brianne Randle of KHON earned exasperated groans).
The scenario was very familiar, as social media services were similarly abuzz during a tsunami scare in February of last year. As before, the hitsunami.info information portal came back to life, John Garcia coordinating the updating and aggregating of tsunami information… even though, this time, he was in Austin, Texas to attend SXSW.
In many cases, Twitter posts from people at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and State Civil Defense got news out several minutes before it made it on the air via live TV and radio, which was providing non-stop blanket coverage. And when official websites buckled under heavy load, local geeks hosted mirrors of important resources, such as tsunami inundation zones and evacuation routes.
On Facebook, the page for the County of Maui became a clearinghouse for information on evacuation areas, road closures, and utility shutdowns. Nervous residents would post questions (“Are Kahului roads open?”) and the page administrator would respond (“Not all…County crews are still working.”).
Meanwhile, journalists around the world found many of their on-location sources via social media. This time around, Shiro was contacted or interviewed by Good Morning America, Aljazeera, WABC and KAIT. A Fox affiliate in Texas, KABB, reached out via Twitter and interviewed Garcia. I was contacted by ABC, NBC and NPR, and after responding to a Twitter inquiry from BBC News, had several live telephone interviews with various programs.
It was surreal getting reports from people I know online in the UK, reporting back that they’d heard me on the news there. “Small world” doesn’t even begin to describe what social media has done to personal networks.
As things unfolded in the islands, media outlets retweeted several posts by Twitter users in the islands. In one remarkable convergence of media and celebrity, Alyssa Milano retweeted Andy Carvin’s mention of the hitsunami.info website.
And that was all before dawn on Friday, the morning after the earthquake struck.
Now, as the scope of the disaster in Japan becomes increasingly clear, and with new threats emerging from the rubble of damaged nuclear plants, social media remains a key tool in sustaining awareness and driving fundraising efforts. But it’s in the middle of an unfolding news event, where new information breaks from minute to minute, that tools like Twitter truly shine.
- Tsunami Hawaii (Aina Haina) – March 11, 2011: YouTube video footage of tsunami wave action cresting the six-foot seawall at my dad’s house. Of all the local video of tsunami effects I’ve seen, this one made the strongest impression on me… simply because I know that shoreline very well. It’s normally very, very placid.
- Social Media, Tsunamis, and Crisis Management: Tomorrow’s monthly meeting of the Hawaii Chapter of the Social Media Club will focus on this topic. And Shiro is the featured speaker.