Coming Out of the Cupboard: Social Media in the Christchurch Earthquake

March 16, 2011 by  
Filed under Reports from the field, Social Impacts

Figure 1: Canta is the official magazine of the University of Canterbury Students Association

By Lori Peek, Department of Sociology, Colorado State University
March 15, 2011

Imagine for a moment that you recently traveled to a foreign country to study. You just arrived a few days ago. You are settling in, trying to adjust to the new surrounds, attempting to make friends, and struggling to understand the language and culture.

Then a massive earthquake hits.

What would you do after the ground stopped shaking? How would you respond? Who would you turn to for help?

The above scenario happened to a young woman from Bangladesh. On February 19, 2011, she moved to Christchurch to study at the University of Canterbury. Then, just four days later, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake shook and shattered the city.

This young woman, already overwhelmed by the transition to New Zealand, was terrified. Her four flat mates evacuated the city, seeking refuge outside the disaster zone. She was thus left behind, alone and overwhelmed. She locked herself in what New Zealanders call a “cupboard” (or a small wooden wardrobe), drank bottled water and ate saltine crackers and waited for help.

Then, thankfully, she logged on to the University of Canterbury Students Association (UCSA) Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/#!/theUCSA). The Facebook page, which is updated many times a day by dedicated UCSA staff members, directed this woman to the Student Welfare office. She was greeted by a kind staff member, and ultimately was relocated south to Dunedin.

Facebook may not have directly saved a life, but it certainly reduced the suffering of this particular young woman.

The above story is just one of many that the EERI social scientists—myself, Jeannette Sutton, and Anne Wein—have heard this week as we have traveled about Christchurch, talking with the many extraordinary individuals who have contributed to the emergency response. I offer a special thanks to Steve Jukes, Director of the UCSA, for taking the time to talk with us today about the role of social media in the disaster.

4:11 a.m., March 16, 2011

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