surrealism, cognitive dissonance and virtual volunteering for actual disasters

On Tuesday I was practicing digital disaster response, helping reformat and retweet critical flood, mudslide and other info to the “Tweak the Tweet” spreadsheet and map (#TtT) during the #NWrain, #WArain and #WAflood events, or “instances” as Data Informatics expert Kate Starbird (@Kate30_CU) calls them.

There was a lull in activity, and I was not finding a lot of useful info to put on the map. This is not a bad thing, except that I wanted to keep practicing, because who knows when a bigger emergency will happen, right? Well, guess what.

I started seeing reports of a tornado in a place called Aumsville. Turned out to be in Oregon. My state.

There’s a surreal feeling that occurs in these moments of disaster; it can occur not only at the disaster site, but also far away  as you try to fit the square peg of a new reality in to the round hole of what existed only a few minutes ago. I wrote about this a few months ago when I was helping Kate Starbird with the #Boulderfire response, which was my introduction to social media in emergencies.*

She had mentioned a surreal feeling as she worked to set up the response to a real emergency in her own community. I’d seen her first tweet saying that she was coming home from the gym and saw some smoke – within minutes it was obvious that a serious wildfire was underway and she was setting up the tool she had been using to help Haiti for an emergency in her own back yard. I jumped right in to help, and kept thinking about that conversation. After I thought about this for a couple of days, I wrote to her that I had felt the same thing myself during the 1994 Northridge Earthquake in Los Angeles:

“…you mentioned early on in the fire that you had a surreal feeling as you worked setting up the response – this is very interesting to me, and I think that I know what you mean, as I had worked for many years at the J. Paul Getty Museum preparing the art and facility for disaster before the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. (And everything worked! We suffered no losses due to good preparation and training!)
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But I remember how strange it felt, having spent years putting these preparations in place – and to see what happened when the earthquake hit and we began to operate as we had trained to. There is a certain cognitive dissonance between the envisioned response and the actual response, since you can never quite imagine exactly how a disaster will play out…”

Now back to the present disaster with flooding and slides instead of wildfires or quakes and now I have to switch to the tornado and here’s this feeling again. I don’t dwell on it, I just change my Tweetgrid searches from “mudslide”, “flood” etc… to “tornado”, “Aumsville” etc… and let the surreal feeling wash over me like Astoria rain, which does not usually fall straight down as much as sideways. I go to work; my searches: Aumsville. Tornado. Shelter. #ORtornado. Volunteer…

I ‘m resisting pressing the “delete” key on this post, as it sounds a little self-absorbed, but these are real thoughts emerging from real emergencies, and the surreal feeling is not just because I’m so far from the actual disaster, since I’ve experienced it from both inside the disaster experience, and now outside – not as a passive gawker, but as an active helper.

This tornado is no less real to me than the ’94 Northridge quake, my apartment shaking me awake at 5am, flashlight already switched on in my living room**, the smell of natural gas and the flash of downed power lines; no less real than the ’07 Oregon coastal gale, trees stacked on houses, the air thick with roof tiles flying like birds and downtown Astoria’s glass carpet of broken shop windows; no less real than the ’08 Nehalem Valley freeze and power outage, delivering supplies with a sled to folks who burned their furniture to stay warm when the firewood was gone.

As a digital volunteer I am not there in person to offer comfort, or help pick up debris, but I do what I can; I start my search of the stream for those key pieces of useful data that could  help someone to find shelter, locate a missing loved one, find assistance for an insurmountable task, or direct concerned well-wishers on the internet to a place where they could donate some dollars or valuable time to aid those who had a tougher day than they did.

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* I contacted Kate after seeing her #TtT presentation at the Red Cross Emergency Social Data Summit. I think that like twitter, which is still discovering what it is, TtT will be an incredibly useful and resilient tool in catastrophic response and recovery. What other real-time, crowdsourced map can be populated with data directly from a disaster area using just a regular cell phone sending text messages to twitter? That’s not the only way to use it, but it’s one that seems to me to be full of possibility.

** I had acquired a vintage ’60′s flashlight a month before the quake. It was sitting on the floor in front of a framed photo that was leaning on my stereo. During the shaking, the picture fell forward, clipping the switch on the light, so when I ran to the living room during the shaking, my flashlight was sitting on in the middle of the floor. True story.

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