Mehta: Disasters, Twitter go hand in hand

Michael Mehta / Kamloops Daily News
November 2, 2012 01:00 AM

The recent 7.7-magnitude earthquake near Haida Gwaii briefly converted some houses in Western Canada to makeshift discotheques with chandeliers swinging, houseplants vibrating, dogs and other pets squirming and the occasional lunatic surfer giddy with thoughts of riding the big one off Tofino.

End-of-worlders likely sat over tea the following morning discussing how this seismic event was a prophecy of things to come on Dec. 21, 2012, when the Mayan calendar officially ends.

The earthquake resulted in the cancellation of Halloween parties as first responders rushed to fire and police stations in Dracula, Darth Vader, and possibly cute but really annoying couples costumes like Raggedy Ann and Andy. Incidentally, I can't imagine any man excited by the prospect of wearing such an outfit, and even less so when he might have to rescue farm animals trapped in gaping maws left by fractures in the earth, fires from ruptured gas lines, and flooding. Fortunately none of these things happened, but if they did how capable are we to respond to them in appropriate and timely ways?

Every community has an emergency plan in place and has dedicated people who willingly sacrifice Halloween candy to serve. Many of these plans rely upon tried and true approaches for assessing risk, triaging, and deploying resources to manage hazards. But there's something special - and a little scary - about system-wide risks resulting from natural disasters. They strain emergency response systems very quickly. Can we ever truly be ready for major disasters, and do newer technologies like Twitter help?

The night of this earthquake saw an incredible amount of activity on the Internet. Tweeters on Twitter were burning the tips of their fingers with friction from furious keyboard action, and it was interesting to see how CBC-Television in Vancouver integrated their broadcast with the Twittersphere. That evening viewers provided accounts to CBC of their actual experiences via Twitter, email, and telephone calls. Moreover, the Twitter account of Emergency Info BC was humming with activity all night and into the next morning, and it was likely quite reassuring to get timely responses from this government agency, thereby showing that government can be quick and accountable when resources align well with new technologies and user interests.

Many who snicker at Twitter and its 140-character limit may wish to reconsider their opinion since it is clear that new technologies and old media have found common ground.

Disasters and social causes seem like particularly ripe zones for convergence and users of these technologies benefit from this in many ways.

The most obvious difference between users of conventional media and newer technologies is the age gap. System-wide issues and risks bring together the demographic differences to benefit everyone, and in concrete ways this earthquake provided an interesting stress-test. All should be well for the big test assuming that electrical systems and Internet servers stay up and ready for the task.

Dr. Michael Mehta is a sociologist who focuses on environmental and health risk issues.

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