Getting in Touch After a Disaster

Before cellphones, it was much harder to get a hold of loved ones, but it was also less likely you knew they were in danger at all


The tragic events this week in Boston highlighted so many dichotomous things about our world: the power of people to come together, and to destroy one another. The power of social media to inform, and to disinform. The power of technology to connect loved ones and to keep us confused. After the bombings, cell phone service in the Boston area was a wreck as everyone tried to get a hold of loved ones. Phone calls dropped, texts arrived sporadically, and everyone waited breathlessly to hear from their family and friends.

In the past, long before cell phones, getting in touch with loved ones during a disaster was much harder. But the chances than you even knew about the disaster were low, too. The French invasion of Russia, which happened on the 24th of June in 1812, wasn’t confirmed by news sources until July 13th of that year. News that gold had been discovered in California took a full seven months to reach the East Coast. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln didn’t hit newspapers until twelve days after it happened. When bombs went off in Boston, however, news spread nearly immediately.

In historical disasters, too, there were less lifelines keeping those affected in touch with the outside world. In 1906, when a giant earthquake wracked San Fransisco and set much of the city on fire, there was little residents could do to contact one another. The New York Times story from the quake says:

Telegraph and telephone communication was cut off for a time.

The Western Union was put completely out of business and the Postal Company was the only one that managed to get a wire out of the city. About 10 o’clock even the Postal was forced to suspend.

In 1989, another earthquake hit San Fransisco. This time, the quake took down the main 911 call system, and the usual backup that would route 911 calls to other departments went down with a switch failure. On September 11th, when terrorists attacked the World Trade Centers, people reported calling 911 from the towers and being put on hold because the system simply couldn’t keep up. The combination of actual physical damage to infrastructure from the planes, and the volume of calls being made, rendered cell phones essentially useless.

During the 9/11 attacks, however, BlackBerry pagers allowed many to stay in touch while those without them could not. “I had my cellphone in one hand, and it was useless, and my BlackBerry in the other, and it was my lifeline that day,” Ms. Federman told the New York Times. The reason Blackberry pagers worked so much better at the time was that they didn’t rely on the same telephone system to send messages. Federman was able to email her husband terrifying messages, writing “IG WTC explosion. I’m going to street. I’m scared”, and, “Seems helicopter crashed into WTC, Going to street now. Very scary. End of world.”

In the aftermath of the Boston bombings, the internet made finding a loved one easier. During 9/11, by comparison, people posted photographs of missing family members downtown. The Japanese earthquake in 2011 was the first time the Google Person Finder got a lot of press, helping people from afar track their family members. The same tool was used to track marathoners this week. There are places like the Safe and Well List, maintained by the Red Cross, or the Contact Loved Ones project that came out of Hurricane Katrina.

In places without a robust infrastructure, it can be harder. When the earthquake hit Haiti, finding family members was much harder than it was for many in Japan. Some researchers tried to use cell phone signals to map and track people, but the earthquake destroyed reception. Japan is experimenting with blimps that could up telephone signals during emergencies.

In Boston, social media became the go-to for confirming the safety of their friends and family. Runners checked in on Facebook and Twitter to reassure family and friends that they were okay.

Technology is, in this way, a blessing and a curse. It lets us experience the pangs of a horrible event as it unfolds, but opens a way for us to connect with our families and friends to make sure they’re okay.

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