Haiti and the World Wide Web
by Joy E. Stocke
Google Map of Port Au Prince After Quake
On Thursday morning, in the wake of Haiti’s earthquake, on my Facebook page I followed a link posted by my colleague and Inquirer Staff Writer John Timpane to a piece he wrote for The Philadelphia Inquirer titled: Social Media a Lifeline After Quake.
What came to mind is how communication has been transformed in a little over a decade. In 1999, West Coast Editor Angie Brenner and I were in Istanbul the day after an earthquake (measuring 7.6 on the Richter Scale; the Haitian Earthquake measured 7.0) devastated the city of Yalova on the Sea of Marmara. The earthquake destroyed 50,000 (poorly constructed) houses, killed nearly 17,000 people, and left approximately half a million people homeless.
At the time Angie and I weren’t traveling with cell phones. And truth be told, since we didn’t own cell phones, we used phone booths and phone cards. Although we were on a research assignment and I had my laptop with me, our hotel (an old Ottoman Sea Captain’s home) was not yet set up for in-room internet connection.
The hotel, while safe enough, had no phone service, which meant no Internet and fax service; and as the news trickled out, our frantic families had no way of knowing where we were or if we were all right.
Contrast that with a quote from Timpane’s article:
In countless instances, the first word from quake-ravaged areas was a post, tweet or text message. The Lawrenceville Presbyterian church sent a group to Haiti the very day of the quake, and after hours of anxiety, the first word was a text message: “I’m ok. Can’t call. I’m ok. Start the list” – the telephone tree.
By comparison, according to Turkish government documents:
A massive international response was mounted to assist in digging for survivors and assisting the wounded and homeless. The rescue teams were dispatched within 24–48 hours of the disaster, and the assistance to the survivors was channeled through NGOs and the Red Crescent.
Twenty-four hours after the Haitian quake I was getting my hair cut. In the chair next to me sat a woman texting on her iPhone as the hairdresser maneuvered a blowdryer over her curls. She told me that she was a missionary who had returned from Haiti in November after a year working with a school outside of the now-devastated city of Port Au Prince. She was frantic to get back, she said. But it wasn’t so easy. People were eager to help, but with limited air strips only so many planes could land and take off.
A friend had just texted her to say that the Partners in Health compound outside of Port Au Prince, set up by medical anthropologist and physician Dr. Paul Farmer, was still standing, while so many other buildings had collapsed. Farmer’s buildings remained because they were constructed of limestone instead of poor quality cinderblock. She also said that she was nervous that some aid organizations wouldn’t be able to get funds and supplies where needed. (She said that Partners in Health had a very efficient system for administering donations.)
As was made so clear last year in Iran, we are all deeply connected, at least on the information end of events – and for loved ones missing a lost relative this communication is vital.
But when I read the end of John Timpane’s piece for the Philadelphia Inquirer, I couldn’t help thinking he was reading my mind. And so I’ll quote him:
Can social media mobilize as much money, blood, blankets and food for Haiti as older means? Too soon to tell. But there’s no doubt: They’re how we connect now when catastrophe hits.
Joy E. Stocke is founder and Editor in Chief of Wild River Review. She is completing a travel memoir, Anatolian Days and Nights, A Love Affair with Turkey-Land of Dervishes, Goddesses and Saints, co-written with Angie Brenner. You can visit the book’s website at: Anatolian Days and Nights.com.