On January 15, 2010, three days after the earthquake in Haiti, Americans were on the ground, rescue teams ready for action, and survivors’ stories were going viral.
“You can help,” my friend Olivier, an ex-army guy, said. He was in touch with one of the special units on site. “We’ll use your profile in a press release. You’ll collect information about trapped survivors, format it, and forward it.”
I posted an announcement on Facebook and braced myself for the S.O.S. messages.
Every two minutes, they came.
We need help in Delmas 60, on the Caroli field. A lot of injured there.
There is a young man under the rubbles of Caribbean Supermarket in Delmas 95. His name is Adolfo. He’s still alive, by the freezers. Please, please, for the love of God, send a team on site to help him. I am begging you!
Six people are alive at UNIBANK.
Jennifer R. is still buried under the rubble of a cybercafé, right across the Nouveau Collège Bird.
An employee of the Hotel Montana is still buried under the rubbles.
In the span of 24 hours, I replied to three hundred fifteen messages, offering words of comfort, requesting more information, and focusing on the task at hand to keep my cool.
At first, I only got an automatic reply from the Rescue Team: “We received your email. Thanks for the information. We are trying our best to help you.” Then, an actual human wrote back: “Michele, we will send a SAR team to these places as soon as possible. As a reminder: We have few SAR teams and need to prioritize those requests that are as confirmed as possible. Can you cross-check somehow?”
Soon, people were also asking for food, water, and medications via social media.
Madame Evanotte Robert needs insulin Novolin 70/30 and water. She also has breast cancer.
More than a hundred shoppers died inside the Caribbean Supermarket after the earthquake hit.
Two hundred people died in the Hotel Montana.
Madame Robert did not make it. Her medications did not arrive on time.
As the news poured in, I started screaming inside. But the screams never passed my throat. They morphed into a throbbing, stabbing fist that lodged under my rib cage.
Today, still scarred by the events of that year, I ponder the role played by social media in many of the rescue missions in 2010.
Social media can save lives — but, of course, it has its limits. Information is now spreading faster than it ever has; unfortunately, it is not always reliable information. The panel taking place on Sunday, May 23, will see Carel Pedre and Hervé Fanini-Lemoine examine the toll of social media on interpersonal relationships, and the influence of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, etc., at the social, political, and economic level.
The two experts will share valuable — maybe life-saving — information.
Gray Areas: Human Relations and Critical Thinking in the Era of Social Media takes place on Sunday, May 23, and you can register in advance on Miami Book Fair’s website. The full itinerary for Little Haiti Book Festival can be found right here. You can revisit The New Tropic’s past coverage of this year’s virtual celebration here and here.