The Great Twitter Earthquake of 2011: Natural Disasters Are All About Context
Posted by Avory
The reaction to the earthquake on the East Coast of the US today went by pretty quickly on Twitter. First, we all ran from doorways to our computers to scream “holy shit, earthquake!” Then everyone tweeted to make sure everyone else was all right as the magnitude of the disaster became evident from our streams. Then the jokes began and the West Coasters started making fun of the East Coasters. On my stream, @enterblisstonia pointed out that everyone experiences disasters differently, and laughing about it? Not that funny.
I’ve been through a lot of disasters and weather events—blizzards, hurricanes, a 500-year flood, -49 degree F windchill, tornadoes, two earthquakes, heat waves, record highs, and record lows. I’ve also seen how people react in seemingly ridiculous ways to tiny weather events, from a few inches of snow to a tropical storm to a few days of 90 degree heat. But what always strikes me in these situations is how, as those who’ve been through a particular event make fun of those who haven’t, they seem to be missing the context.
Some weather-related actions, like the inexplicable bread-and-milk buying thing us Southerners do, aren’t very rational. But most of the time, when people “overreact” to a weather event, it’s not about lack of knowledge or understanding. It’s about lack of resources.
When a disaster occurs in a place like Haiti, it’s not just the disaster that’s a problem, it’s the extreme poverty. On a smaller scale, that’s true of disasters in the US. The levees in New Orleans were an obvious example. Others abound—a Northerner living in the South may be perfectly prepared to go out in a blizzard, but you’re not going to get very far without snowplows. A lot of us who’ve experienced an earthquake before were naturally concerned today because we have questions about how well DC or New York buildings are constructed to withstand the earth moving. The same was true when a hurricane hit Maryland when I was in college—I’ve lived through plenty of hurricanes, but my concern was the dormitory walls only built to withstand 100 mph winds.
Fortunately, it looks like the damage today was minimal, so we can laugh at the “disaster” photos of upended lawn chairs and fallen books. But West Coasters who mocked East Coast reactions to the earthquake, next time you get a foot of snow, you might want to remember today and stay away from Twitter.