Social Media Connecting People During An Emergency

A while ago I was invited to talk at the Walsall Brew Camp  about my experiences using Social Media in the aftermath of the New Zealand earthquakes that devastated the city Christchurch, Having family who lost their home in the quake and living so far away I used social media heavily in the time  immediately after to keep my self informed. While there Sasha Taylor asked if I would blog about my experience for VOST UK – the United Kingdom Virtual Operation Support Teamso I did and i was posted last week while I was on holiday- and now I’m sharing that post here with you;

On September 4th 2010 a 7.1 magnitude earthquake ripped through the city of Christchurch, shaking people from their beds and while 2 people were seriously injured no one was killed, no buildings collapsed and while there were millions of dollars of structural damage, the city felt like it had dodged a bullet. Repair work and structural surveys were undertaken quickly and although the residents were still being shaken on a regular basis life quickly returned to normal.

I watched this all unfold from afar, reading the local news from sites such as the New Zealand Herald and TVNZ from my home here in the UK. At that point in time I’d never been to New Zealand but had, and still have, family out there. My uncle emigrated there in the 1980′s and is married with 3 children; Christchurch was their home so I was interested in staying up to date to check they were ok.

Photo: Geoftheref

In the months following Sept 4th hundreds of aftershocks rocked the city, small tremors were a daily, even an hourly occurrence, the most notable being a magnitude 4.9 on Boxing Day that caused yet more damage but again no deaths and things looked to be settling down. That was until February 22nd 2011.

At 12:51pm a 6.3 magnitude ripped the heart out of the city. It was the middle of the night here and I knew nothing of it until I sleepily switched on the UK breakfast news.

New Zealand is a quake prone area falling within the “pacific ring of fire” an arc of earthquake and volcanic zones stretching from Chile in South America through Alaska and down through the South Pacific. Small shakes are not an unusual occurrence there but quakes that make the headline news in the UK are. I knew this one was bad – I reached for my phone.

I managed to get through to my family first time, they sounded awful the call was brief and punctuated with the sound sirens in the background. My heart broke as listened to their shock as my family told us of the devastation around them and the damage to their home and of those that had lost their lives – I established that they were all still alive and relatively well and hung up, It was a small mercy that I have managed to get through to them at all, It was over a week before I managed to get through again. Twitter was my saviour.

As I was talking to my family on that initial morning I was already searching for any related news online and quickly discovered the hashtags that were most commonly being used by people in the city. I set up search streams for them, and any other words most likely related to the area in Hootsuite. I was determined that if I couldn’t speak to my family because their communication systems were down then I was going to be as informed as I could be to reassure myself that they were well.

GeoNet Project LogoI kept track of the location and severity of aftershocks via Geonet  (168 of them in the first 72 hours!!!) the depth and distance from the centre of the city allowing me to judge the likelihood of it affecting my family home any further. I talked to residents on the ground that were more than happy to share their experience and information from the stricken area. I quickly became very knowledgeable on the effects of quakes related to their depth vs distance from the epicentre, the geography on Christchurch and its suburbs and the damage liquefaction– when the shaking in the ground turns previously solid ground to liquid – can cause.

To begin with local residents used twitter as a cathartic release for people on the ground sharing their stories and to talk to anyone about the nightmare that was unfolding around them but soon there was a definitive shift from just talking and release towards information sharing and help offering. Residents from other areas of New Zealand were offering rooms for quake refugees to stay in. Locals were offering clean water and organising food drives but for me the most useful updates came from official accounts allowing me to be able to feel like I was doing something to help my family from the other side of the world.

Christchurch City Council, who had never been on twitter before set up an account and the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority who set up their account after the 7th Sept quake reappeared. They quickly established which was the most commonly used hash tag #eqnz and quickly started picking up on news – retweeting really useful information and sending out their own updates.

I took note as telecommunication companies stopped all charges from their payphones to aid communications on the ground  and checked Google earth to find the nearest box to Uncles home, I listed the school gyms that ware opening to offer residents showers and found all the times the army would be on the beach pumping and purifying water from the sea to make it safe to drink. I found information about community rallies and EQC information points and food drops and much more – I took all this from the Council and CERA so when I finally managed to get through to my family again I didn’t feel so helpless, I had something useful to share with them, a lot of which they knew nothing about themselves having spent the week with no electricity, no plumbing and sleeping in their garden.


As well as all the information I was getting from the “official” sources I was still talking to people on the ground finding out what life was really like, getting the bits of information that are missed from news reports or that my family didn’t want to tell us in case we worried. Things weren’t great out there, so it was in awe I watched as out of the remains of the city an amazing community rose. Using twitter and other social platforms to coordinate themselves people in the west – who were not directly affected by the quake – were baking on mass and then walking the streets of the devastated eastern suburbs handing cakes, sandwiches and drinks to residents.

Farmy Army at work

Students led by Sam Johnson resurrected the Student Volunteer Army that had helped with the clean-up post September quake. Up to 1500 students walked the streets shovelling silt and liquefaction from peoples home. Farmers came together to form the Farmy Army and drove into the city on mass with trailers full of food to distribute and shovels in hand to help with the clean-up.

Individuals were driving in from all over the south island offering support and any help they could and people from all over both islands were using the #tag to offer rooms for people to stay in. They were stories of real people coming together, making difference to each other. I read of one family who after their house was destroyed opted to stay in the city, pitching a tent on a traffic island and woke every morning to find bread and fresh milk outside of their makeshift home. There were so many stories I wish I could share them all. It was heartening to see and to know I could relay these stories to my family giving them something, maybe hope, from so far away.

Imogen Heap - photo from align=While all this was going on we were also trying to do something practical to help. My partner James works with a musician Imogen Heap – she wanted to do something to help the area and as she was touring Australia she thought a charity concert actually in Christchrch would help but her Australian promoter didn’t think it would be appropriate, or welcome at that time, but we suspected otherwise.

Using twitter and the #eqnz tag we asked locals for their thoughts and finally got in touch with a local councillor, who we put in touch with Immi’s management to make it happen – bizarrely at the same time we happened to be in the country but as we were out backpacking we were unable to attend!

By the time I finally flew out there at the end of April I was well versed in the names of local councillors and service providers. I could talk with them knowledgably about zoning and the insurance processes and the ever changing road closures. I met with people I had been talking to online and I visited areas I’d read so much about and we experienced for ourselves the constant shakes and shudders that still shocked the city with a 5.1 shaking us from our beds at 3 o’clock in the morning. I had a greater respect for how they were living, understanding what all the locals meant when they kept referring to “the new normal” and the upmost respect for the authorities who were trying to deal with the mass scale of it all.

Returning home I continued to watch the #tag but with less urgency. The aftershocks appeared to be receeding and I’d seen for myself that my family were safe, then on June 13th just as everything appeared to be quietening down the city was once again shook to its core by a double whammy 2 huge aftershocks in quick succession, a 5.7 and a 6.3 which this time was just too much for my families home. Interior walls came crashing down around them and the whole house moved off its foundation and over an artisan well in their garden.

The subsequent months weren’t great for them, a crumbing house where it was too dangerous to go upstairs, rising damp from the well under their floorboards, a cold wet miserable winter spend sleeping on their kitchen floor and I became anxious again, scouring the internet to reassure myself they were ok so it was a relief when I discovered their insurance claim was being dealt with and they could start looking to the future.

They’ve since moved and bought a house and a cafe in the neighbouring town of Darfield. They are doing great, sad about leaving their family home but are moving forwards and are planning on opening a bed & breakfast in time for the next skiing season.

It was a rollercoaster few months for them and for the rest of the family who were so far away and unable to help, but thanks to social media making the world a much smaller place we were as informed as we could be in uncertain times.

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