In the early hours of the morning today (March 11), an 8.9 magnitude earthquake struck and triggered a devastating tsunami in Japan. Japan was not the only country affected though; warnings sounded throughout the Pacific and countries called for evacuations near coast lines. Even in the United States, Orange County beaches in California were closed as a precaution and sailing vessels were knocked loose in Santa Cruz, CA due to the rough waves.
Although it is now being reported that the U.S. and Hawaii were spared from major damage, Hawaii mobilized people on the ground to warn their residents during the night (their time) about the potential threat. Sirens whistled across the islands and trucks with loud speakers drove through neighborhoods. A blogger from the Huffington Post (via a PRDaily article) wrote “A truck is circling our neighborhood, with a man giving an emergency management message over a loudspeaker: ‘Extremely dangerous waves are expected at 3 a.m. Occupants of high-rise buildings are advised to go to the third floor or above without delay.'”
The warning system is being referred to as low-tech, but I can’t help but wonder if it is the most efficient. Sure, social media sites were also on high-alert with constant updates being fed through Twitter, but we cannot rely on all in danger to be plugged into the Internet or watching the television. What happens to those who are reading a book in bed? Although social media is a powerful tool, nothing beats person-to-person communication to get an important message heard, especially in the case of a natural disaster warning.
Social media is a good way to complement other alert methods and an important information distribution channel that cannot be ignored, but I am impressed that Hawaii was able to mobilize their manpower so quickly to warn their fellow residents to get prepared.
It cannot be argued that the Internet is a powerful tool post-crisis though. In addition to Twitter feeds and live blogging from various sites (here is CNN’s), Google reacted with their Person Finder tool that helps you find a person or provide information on missing persons. Additionally, the Google Crisis Center is updated in realtime with a map of the earthquake, the latest related news and lists linking to warning centers, disaster bulletin boards, train and blackout information, and more.