Disaster Response and the Web in 2005: The Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina

The most emotionally affecting memories of 2005 were the two huge natural disasters that struck the world - and how people responded to them. In this post I will review how the Web was utilized by thousands of people to help and to deal with those tragedies.

The most emotionally affecting memories of 2005 were the two huge natural disasters that struck the world - and how people responded to them. In this post I will review how the Web was utilized by thousands of people to help and to deal with those tragedies.

The Tsunami

When a magnitude 9.0 earthquake caused huge tsunami waves Blogs had eyewitness stories and emotional depth to hit coastal areas of south and east Asia in late December 2004, the public response was one of shock and then emergency assistance on a global scale. It quickly became apparent that the Web was being used in response to the disaster in three main ways:

1) as a constantly updated source of news about the disaster;

2) as a way for ordinary people to respond emotionally;

3) and probably most importantly, to organize aid efforts.

Wikipedia and BBC

The Wikipedia/Wikinews site was one of the most comprehensive sources of news information about the Tsunami. It was updated in real time by hundreds of volunteer editors. The BBC and other mainstream media organizations also were quick to update news on their websites, utilizing multimedia and Web video to explain the disaster to people and solicit help.

The Wikinews site launched a Tsunami Help page to collect relief effort resources. It featured news updates, links to aid agencies, missing and found people, and helpline numbers.

SEA-EAT

Perhaps the most striking use of the Web in response to the tsunami disaster was the blogs started by people, which brought personal eyewitness stories and emotional depth to the media coverage.

A group of Indian bloggers started a blog called The South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami Blog, aka the SEA-EAT blog. The focus on this blog has been about how people can contribute. One post entitled Seeking Info? Ask the Bloggers attracted over 200 comments from the date it was published (29 December, 2004) and then steadily throughout 2005. Interestingly, a post entitled Your suggestions and links attracted well over 550 comments from the date it was published (27 December, 2004), which shows the lengths people were willing to go to help. A lot of the comments on the blog were regarding donations and relief work.

Eyewitness blogs

Phuket Tsunami Blogspot is a blog that was started by an eyewitness to the tsunami, Rick Von Feldt (an American resident of Singapore). He was vacationing on the beach in Phuket, Thailand at the time the waves struck. His blog became a heartfelt journal of tsunami survival stories. Indeed 'survival' is a keyword in the blog - Rick goes as far as to say on the homepage that "This website is about SURVIVAL."

Rick started out by publishing his initial email to his family, talking about the lack of electricity, explaining what happened, and reassuring his family and friends that he was OK ("I am fine. I was not in the wave - but passed by 4 minutes before it hit - and went up the hill to my hotel."). In a post on 1 January 2005 Rick described the waves as they descended onto the beaches of Phuket:

"But then we saw the wall. At first - way out at sea. But wait. If you blinked your eyes - it changed positions really fast. Really fast. And then we could see it was moving too fast. For a few seconds, everyone was mesmerized by the wall. And the sound. And then, with a snap of a finger, hundreds were popped out of their hypnosis - and people started to walk. Fast. And then run. And soon, everyone started to scream."

In the following days, Rick's personal blog grew into a space where others left their own first-hand accounts of what they saw and experienced during the tsunami. Luke Simmonds' story was posted on 30 December and included descriptions of being at sea when the tsunami hit and being washed ashore with the waves, then accounts of horrific injuries of victims and survival stories of children rescued by Luke and others.

Citizen Journalism

The catchphrase for news and first-hand accounts delivered by bloggers is ' Citizen Journalism'. It's almost always subjective, unlike traditional journalism, and in the case of disaster coverage it's all about reporting first-hand accounts of events as they unfold.

Hurricane Katrina

When Hurricane Katrina struck the United States in late August 2005 and subsequently flooded the city of New Orleans, the response from people on the Web was huge. Wikis and blogs were set up, including the Katrina Help blogspot site and Wiki - created by several founders and members of the SEA EAT (South East Asian Earthquake And Tsunami) blog & wiki.

The Hurricane Katrina relief effort also included:

Skype support

It was also interesting to see relief efforts set up around Web companies and their technologies. For example Skype was a nexus for help activities. Volunteers of the blogs and wikis worked with developers for the Skype API and the SkypeJournal team - independent of the company Skype. But the Skype company too showed support by offering free SkypeOut minutes. Through it all the volunteers set up a messaging centre, to connect those needing help with those that had help to offer. Dina Mehta documented a lot of these efforts.

Summary

This post was just a glimpse at some of the ways the Web was used in 2005 for disaster response. There are many other valuable real world uses for the Web and associated technologies, which I'll be exploring over 2006.

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