Shout it Out Loud

On October 17, 1989, my best friend Mish made fun of my hair. I had tried something new with a scarf, and she laughed outright when she saw me. It didn't make me mad so much as just confirm a feeling I'd had all day: that I wanted to be anywhere but on campus at San Francisco State. So I convinced Mish that we should skip out, something the two of us never had done before.

We headed to one of our favorite watering holes in the upper Haight. We'd played a few feeble games of pool when, at a bit after 5, the ground began to shake. As Bay Area natives, Mish and I didn't react at first, but after about ten seconds I commented that it seemed like a big one. She agreed and suggested we leave the bar to wait it out. We took our beers and joined a growing crowd in the middle of Haight Street. When the tremors stopped, a cheer went up; everyone was elated to have weathered another earthquake. Back in the bar, fresh round served, the bartender switched the radio from game three of the World Series to local news. The announcer uttered a phrase that simply wouldn't reconcile with my reality: "The Oakland Bay Bridge has collapsed." The Bay Bridge does not fall down, or so I thought.

The next thing I remember was standing outside with Mish. We could see smoke coming from the direction of the Presidio, and in a surreal moment, a blimp glided overhead. A friend invited us to his place to use the phone. It was comforting to have something to do: call home and tell our parents we were OK. It took a while to get a line out on the overloaded circuits, and when we did, we reassured family quickly, knowing we needed to get off the phone so others could use the lines. Though the bathroom of the flat had collapsed down to the apartment below, we didn't have any context through which to understand the scope of what had happened.

The Loma Prieta earthquake, the area's largest since "the" San Francisco earthquake of 1906, registered 7.1 on the Richter scale and killed fewer than 100 people. The number of injuries was measured in thousands. The city suffered a fire and blackout, but its preparedness is credited with the low loss of life. While I believe there's no way to compare tragedy, I can run it by the numbers: The 9.0 Indian Ocean Earthquake and subsequent tsunami that devastated Asia in December will measure the lives they took in the hundreds of thousands. Undoubtedly, we can compare things like preparedness, warning systems, and communications infrastructure. In some of these things, Asia was found quite wanting, yet its wireless and Internet infrastructure did allow for information to get in and out of the devastated nations.

One constant between my brush with Mother Nature's fury and the biblical wrath she unfurled in Asia is the need for survivors to tell their tales. Only the medium has changed. After the tsunami, tales began to trickle out in the form of brief missives home: I spoke to two people who anxiously waited for word, were happy to receive email from missing loved ones, but disappointed not to hear more. In both cases, it turned out that these survivors were writing from borrowed laptops, with only a moment to communicate the bare essentials before letting the next in line take a turn.

Like survivors' tales, the story of the Web's role in this disaster will continue to unfold for some time to come. Almost immediately, short text messages made their way out of ravaged nations. SMS proved to be a vital channel for communications, as other networks were overwhelmed by traffic, and official news was force-filtered through political sieves. SMS allowed Sri Lankan documentary producer Sanjaya Senanayake to chronicle his travels through the disaster areas using a mobile phone and blogs. Landlines were down and mobile phone voice networks were jammed, but messaging worked without problems.

Journalists reportedly filed stories they knew would be censored by their media outlets, then used STM to get the uncut versions onto the Web. Vlogs popped up overnight to host amateur tsunami videos. Indicxxxxxxxxxxxhviduals, linked by an electronic network from text messages to Web sites, began answering pleas for help and releasing lists of survivors well before government agencies were able to mobilize such efforts. Then, of course, there were the unprecedented econtent fundraising efforts: European text messagers raised about $15 million for tsunami victims. Major etailers featured charitable links, and Ebay facilitated fundraising by allowing sellers to donate a percentage of their proceeds to charities.

Senanayake said he believes the government should use text messaging as an early warning system, since text messages function even when other communications channels are down. This documentarian—with an intimate knowledge of the region—said that it would take only one mobile communications-equipped person in remote areas because "if you can get the message through to one person… they can go out on the street and shout if they need to."