Tsunami Warning San Francisco, and other dirges in the dark

A peek at “local media” during a disaster in the dead of night

Disasters – natural or otherwise – don’t always strike at reasonable hours – and when an insistent pounding on the front door woke me from a deep sleep early in the morning of Friday, March 11, it wasn’t a reasonable hour.

It was 1:30am and our neighbor had woken us to tell us about the hugely incomprehensible 8.9 (later revised to 9.0) earthquake in Japan — and to warn us of the massive tsunami headed our way.

I then proceeded to try to figure out what was really going on — and what, if anything, to do about it. I pored over the tweets for credible news, first relieved that our good friends in Japan were safe, second reading about terrible devastation, in-between baffled by regular life apparently continuing with #ipad2 and #sxsw, and finally trying to parse the warnings about the West Coast of the USA, where I lay awake all night.

tsunami warning san francisco bay area - from http://www.wrh.noaa.gov/mtr/

Tsunami warning San Francisco Bay Area - from National Weather Service at http://www.wrh.noaa.gov/mtr/

On the Web beyond the tweets, I gaped at incredible maps with great red bands all up and down the coast of Northern California – red meaning “warning” – and “warning” apparently meaning, according to the automatically generated Tsunami information I could find, evacuate.

While I tried to parse this information to figure out whether I did, in fact, need to pack my family up and ship out, the official word from San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management was to “monitor local media for updates.” “Which local media would that be?” said SF friend @jamiedsongs. Good question.

At SFGate, the Web site that backs San Francisco’s major newspaper the San Francisco Chronicle, the lights were on but there appeared to be nobody home.

SFGate in the early morning on March 11, 2011

SFGate in the early morning on March 11, 2011

Though it had apparently been (automatically?) alerted to the major quake and tsunami, the front page was obviously stale to say the least, advising “no warning for CA coast” when the National Weather Service had already stuck us in the red “Tsunami Warning” category. Featured feeds were truly strange (live TV from Al Jazeera? Live blog from WSJ?) or virtually irrelevant (a quake details page leading to California earthquakes).

Automatic news is often worse than no news at all. I desperately wished for the “local media” to wake up and interpret all of this.

The only live person I found anywhere close to SFGate was featured columnist Jeanne Cooper, @Hawaii_Insider, who was putting out actual analysis in real-time and for whom I felt immensely thankful.

There was also sign of life at a site I had never previously relied on for news, California Beat, but this wasn’t entirely reassuring when a masthead mistakenly read “Tsunami evacuations issued for Bay Area.”

Tsunami evacuations on California Beat -- later retracted

Tsunami evacuations on California Beat -- later retracted

retraction

retraction

At 4:49am San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee tweeted with a welcome voice of official authority, at last saying that although San Francisco had activated the Emergency Operations center, there was no evacuation ordered.

But still the giant wave was coming. BART indicated they might close down entirely between peak Friday morning commute hours of 7-9am (or they might not), while waiting to see the extent of the hit on Hawaii (which was thankfully minimal) and then later Crescent City — which was not spared.

At the exact moment of tsunami impact in Crescent City, local newspaper the Daily Triplicate was apparently automatically chirping birth announcements (several weeks late), while thetriplicate.com Web site was down.

Crescent City Daily Triplicate, around 7:30am on March 11, 2011

Crescent City Daily Triplicate, around 7:30am on March 11, 2011

In this age of information overload, I realized I knew where to go for tons information and in real time, but not where to go for the right, local information. It was a bizarre world online throughout the night, but bizarre was trivial compared to the real tragedies unfolding across the Pacific in Japan.

The current big problem of information during disasters is that these places we rely on for local, up-to-date news, like all-too-often the cities themselves, are suffering economic woes. I don’t know much about Crescent City’s Daily Triplicate, but it’s likely to be in as much financial peril at the moment as its devastated harbor city itself.

Aside from wishing the very best and holding out hope for Japan and the global community, I only hope existing news channels can materialize the real opportunities that exist here and survive and evolve, not necessarily in that order. Until then, we have each other, in the middle of the night, on Twitter…


And while Lenin read a book on Marx
The quartet practiced in the park
And we sang dirges in the dark
The day the music died

Don McLean – American Pie

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