Natural Disasters and Their Online Implications
by Marydee Ojala
I had my editorial for this issue almost finished when Katrina blew it away.
I don’t mean literally—I was not in New Orleans or other affected
Gulf Coast locales where the hurricane did major damage. The storm, however,
triggered some memories of other natural disasters and the role online played—or
I missed Katrina, but I was there for Hurricane Iwa when it hit Kauai in November
1982 (and I have the tee-shirt to prove it). We had very little warning for
that storm, only a few hours as I recall, and we used the time to load up on
nonperishable food while marveling at the locals who were busy buying snack
foods and beer. Iwa predated laptop computers, so I didn’t have the benefits
of today’s Internet. On Kauai, we were essentially out of touch. We knew
very little about the storm or the damage until after the fact, when we walked
In October 1991, fire ravaged the Oakland, Calif., hills. I had moved from
the area a few years earlier, but still had many friends and former neighbors
in the path of the fire. The Well kept me in touch. The concept of blogs didn’t
exist in 1991, but there were postings to The Well that presaged blogging,
including a guy who posted that, looking out his window, he could see the fire
headed his way. I asked about my neighborhood and people answered with real-time
information. The Well, always ahead of its time, exemplified “citizen
journalism” before we knew that term. The “on the scene”
personal reports were edifying and frightening.
Deb Shinder, who writes the wonderful WXP ezine [www.wxpnews.com], talked
in her Sept. 13, 2005 editorial of keeping up with Hurricane Andrew, which
hit Florida in 1992, via a CompuServe account. I felt a kindred spirit. In
those days, CompuServe Forums were the other precursor to today’s blogs.
Her second point, which I echo, was that, in today’s connected online
world, we are very likely to know somebody in whatever part of the world is
affected by a natural disaster. On Kauai, I knew nobody. In Oakland, I knew
the people affected both from physical and electronic contacts. In New Orleans,
I had friends, colleagues, and family.
During Katrina, expectations about Internet connectivity were high, not just
for the latest news, but for rescue efforts. In today’s online world,
it’s somehow expected that online will just be there. Well, it wasn’t.
This calamity knocked out communication lines of all sorts. Servers went down.
Mobile phones didn’t work. Bloggers wrote until they ran out of power.
There was certainly more information available than in previous natural disasters,
but our need for information outstripped our technical capabilities. Online
promised more than it could deliver.
In the aftermath, information companies are doing wonderful things. LexisNexis,
Thomson, Hoover’s, H.W. Wilson, and CSA all announced programs to help
hurricane victims. Professional associations, such as ALA and SLA, mobilized
to help members and libraries. Much of this is documented at Information Today’s
NewsBreaks [www.infotoday.com/newsbreaks] for the relevant September dates.
Online may not be perfect, but there’s been marked improvement since
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