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Two Crises, Many Connections

2011 March 18
by Kim Cofino

It’s hard to believe that this is the second time we (my husband, Alex & I) have made the decision to leave our home due to external situations in under a year. The first time was during the protests in Bangkok, Thailand, where we happened to live right in the middle of the protest area. And this week, we have left our home in Yokohama, Japan (for Singapore) due to the recent earthquake. Although the two situations are very different, what I’ve learned remains much the same.

We are extremely fortunate.

Some might disagree. I mean, really, what are the chances of us being in the middle of the Bangkok protests last April and now, less than a year later, affected by the earthquake (and resulting disasters) in Japan? (Interestingly, there are at least 6 of us working at YIS now who were living in Bangkok last year.) Even with what one might consider our unlucky fate of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, twice in one year, I actually think we are amazingly lucky.

For starters, although we were living in cities which were affected by serious events, in both instances we remained safe and relatively unaffected.

Last Friday I happened to be home sick when the earthquake hit. I was in on the 9th floor of our 22 floor building, napping when the shaking woke me up. Despite the rattling, crunching, swaying, and slamming, not one thing fell of the walls. I could actually see our building twisting and rolling with the earthquake – walls going one way, floors going another. Through repeated aftershocks, I was able to wait (I’d like to say calmly, but that would not quite be true) in our interior hallway, just watching the doors of our apartment sway back and forth. We never lost power, gas, water or internet connection for the 4 days following (we left on the Monday night), nothing was damaged, and the only thing that toppled over was a big candle. I have no doubt in my mind that, had we been in another country  during that same exact situation, things would have been significantly different.

Once the aftershocks settled down a bit, I was able to walk down our emergency stairwell, where I ran into two lovely Japanese neighbors who explained that I should stay inside (this shows the extent of my earthquake preparedness, I didn’t know if I should stay in or go out), that everything was safe, and offered to help me since I was alone.

After a few hours, I was able to get in touch with Alex, via our school gmail chat (since the phone lines went down immediately – but the internet was uninterrupted), and ended up going up to school for the evening to help our students get home safely. There was no damage to our building, no damage to our school, every child and teacher had a safe place to spend the night (and no one had to sleep at school).

We are also extremely fortunate to be able to make and change our travel plans as needed, and to leave once we made the (difficult) decision to go.

Once we decided that we would feel better with a flight to Singapore booked, we simply booked it. We didn’t think about cost (well, a little bit, since some airlines were charging upwards of US$4000 for a one-way ticket, thankfully, Singapore Air was comparatively very reasonable), we didn’t worry about where we would stay, we just booked it. And it’s not like we had to go to Singapore, we have friends in every major city in Asia, and so so so many of you were so generous in offering to have us stay with you. Thank you!

Once we got the news on Monday morning that school would be closed for the week & through our upcoming 2-week spring break, we decided to try to move our Tuesday night flight a bit earlier. Again, phone lines were jammed and we couldn’t get through with our Japanese phones, so I ended up using Skype to call Singapore Airlines in Japan. We were on hold for around 45 minutes before we finally got through. The lady who helped me was amazing. She was calm, friendly and super organized (oh and of course we did the whole thing in English, though she was obviously not a native speaker). Within minutes, she had us rebooked on an earlier flight with no cost to us. Thank you Singapore Airlines!

Twitter is my lifeline.

I’m still amazed that during all of Friday’s events the internet remained on (and fast) the entire time. I was completely spooked (never having lived in an earthquake zone before) and friends around the world were sending me messages and reassuring me, thank you! Adrienne Michetti basically stayed on Skype with me for at least an hour keeping me calm. I’m not sure what I would have done without Adrienne, Twitter, and all those messages on Skype, gmail, Facebook, etc, but I’m pretty sure it would have entailed some serious panicing and potentially poor decision making.

From the moment I opened my laptop after the earthquake, Twitter has been an invaluable resource. We don’t have TV in our apartment (not that I would choose to watch the international news in a situation like this anyway), so the internet is our only source of news. We were able to watch livestreaming NHK and Al Jazeera, but my real news was coming from my Japan Twitter list.

Basically, the only news I read is from my own, self-curated, list of people I trust based on reading their tweets for months and recommendations from other friends I trust. These people are regular individuals, translating the Japanese news, individual reporters in the Tokyo area, diplomats, or newspapers or magazines in Japan. They are on the ground, constantly reading, watching, and tweeting. And since most of them are actually living in Tokyo, they are doing their absolute best to share only accurate and balanced information – it’s their news too, after all.

This morning, I noticed that most of the people in my Japan list aren’t regularly using hashtags on their posts, meaning that people who know enough about Twitter to search via hashtags may not find the same information I am. And, that’s just the people who know how to search Twitter. I simply could not imagine being in this same situation without understanding at least some of the basics of Twitter. It would be nerve-wracking and frustrating. Especially considering that this is what we get from our traditional media and “experts”:

Two takes on the news - front pages of International Herald T... on Twitpic

How do you know what to believe when one news outlet says this and another says this? Of course, my experience is just superficial, on the sidelines of the crisis, allowing me (safe and secure) to stay up to date. There are plenty of stories about how social networking is helping families find loved ones, and actually affecting life and death situations.

Even today, as I sit in our lovely room at the Hyatt (fortunate!), I am constantly online, checking the updates from my Japan tweets. I don’t bother with the hashtags unless I’m getting antsy, and I am confident that I am getting the most balanced information from people translating Japanese news & sharing international news.

It was the same in Bangkok last year, I felt more informed than any of my other friends (except those who understand how to use Twitter), somehow I always seemed to know what was happening and going to happen before even the most informed of my colleagues (except my US Embassy friends, thank you! You guys are the best!). It’s a very reassuring feeling.

I frequently blather on about how important Twitter is for professional development as learners, but, honestly, it’s even more important for your safety. I have to do two presentations at ETC this year, and I’m tempted to change at least one of them (though I don’t think that will go over well) to discuss how to use Twitter in times of crisis to stay connected, safe and aware of ongoing developments. Everyone, especially people living in countries where they don’t speak the local language, should be fluent in this kind of communication.

It’s never easy to leave.

Thanks to the fantastic and wonderful people I follow on Twitter along with our invaluable real life connections, Alex and I were one of the first people to decide to leave Japan (and we were the first to leave our apartment in Bangkok last year, although several other teachers lived on the same street as us). That might make it seem like they were easy decisions to make, but they weren’t. Both times I have wanted nothing more than to be back at home, especially this time. It’s not really a vacation, even though we’re not working. We’re constantly reading the news, worried about our friends who have chosen to stay, and of course about all of the people who have no choice, and those who were much much much more seriously affected.

It’s a strange feeling. A mixture of sadness and guilt. We made the decision to leave partially for our own concerns (to be safe), but also to be less of a power-drain on the already tenuous power situation in East Japan, and to simply be two less mouths to feed, taking up much needed supplies. I know it’s better for us not to be there. We don’t speak Japanese, so we can’t really help in the north. There’s nothing to do and frequent rotating blackouts (so we’d literally be sitting in the dark some of the time), and we (well, I) would be working myself up into a panic at every new development. But, really, we’d rather be there.

Japan is such a special place. The calm, friendly, orderly and efficient way every single person we dealt with over the days after the earthquake was simply unparalleled (and just the standard way things are done every day in Japan). The construction that undoubtedly saved lives, the dedication to saving the lives of many even at great personal risk, the preparedness and organization and selflessness in the face of unimaginable disaster, and the unshakable belief that they will overcome. It is humbling, heartbreaking and heartwarming all at the same time. I honestly can not think of a place I would rather live, a people I would rather learn from, and a place I would rather be at this moment in time. Japan, as usual, I am in awe.

16 Responses leave one →
  1. March 18, 2011

    Glad you are safe. Great post. Love you guys. See you soon.

  2. March 18, 2011

    I’m glad to hear you’re both safe too. It must have been very scary, and you’re right, being there helps no one.

    Stay safe, and keep us informed of what’s happening. You have a lot of people thinking about you both.

  3. March 19, 2011

    Kim- Thank you for sharing this experience and I am glad you are safe. It sounds like you have had quite a few adventures and a great appreciation for Japanese culture. If you should ever find yourself in Hawaii, it would be great to meet you!
    Kristin Tarnas´s last blog post ..Heroes

  4. March 19, 2011

    Kim,

    glad you and yours are safe. Heart breaking for the people of Japan and the whole world. We watch with great sadness and hope for things to improve.
    tcomfort´s last blog post ..Gelosia Method of Multiplication- mindmasterorg

  5. Cathy Germano permalink
    March 19, 2011

    When I started to read your blog I thought wow this is amazing. I don’t know if I could be so positive and clear thinking. When you were in not one, but two harrowing situations you informed yourself and acted on that information. I am glad you are safe. You are a constant source of valuable information in terms of educational technology. But last week changed that, now I see you in a different light. I see you as a world traveler whose experience is teaching me about safety and the role that social media is playing in this world. I value my twitter account and now I value it even more. Thank you again for being on the web and sharing your experiences. Stay safe and see you on the web.

  6. Maru permalink
    March 19, 2011

    Glad you are safe! Been following your tweets.. :-)
    Great posting.. brought tears to my eyes as well as awe and keep learning abt living in different parts of the world where we are not ‘locals’…
    Couldn’t agree more on the sue and importance of use of twitter! Was up for hours past midnight that earthquake day following on twitter what was being posted and in days to follow… mostly choosing to remain silent at the overwhelming feeling of not being able to help from where I am …
    Thank you for sharing your reflections and always putting it into a way that is so enlightening and educational :-)
    xx

  7. March 19, 2011

    Glad to hear that you are safe, Kim. It is funny that when I first heard about the tsunami /earthquake, (it showed as breaking news here in South Australia at about 6 pm) I immediately thought about you and hoped you and your husband were OK. And that’s even though we’ve never met. The power of connections is very interesting in that once you connect to people, there is always a trail or digital thread to track them and their whereabouts and in your case, your well-being. I’m an infrequent and spasmodic user of twitter but I have never doubted its power as a tool for distributed communication. Keep safe.
    Graham Wegner´s last blog post ..Connected Students

  8. March 21, 2011

    I’m so glad to read these updates, Kim, and hear that you and Alex are ok. I’ve been thinking about you a lot ever since I heard about the quakes. Keep safe!

    I definitely think you should share some sessions about how use Twitter in a crisis, and specifically help educate people about the use of different hashtags. It’s so important to help people understand how they work and how they can contribute to conversations others are following/having by retweeting with new hashtags which may not have been used in original posts.

  9. March 23, 2011

    Wow! I am in awe of your story! I’m so glad that you and your family are safe! You are truly blessed to be able to write this post. It is awesome how you included how you were able to keep in touch with people via skype, gmail, and twitter. I am currently in Dr. Strange’s Edm310 class at The University of South Alabama. Before this class, I thought Twitter wasn’t important and I thought that the internet and technology was spinning way out of control. This class has totally changed my views on these things! Based on the research and blogs I’ve read, my eyes have been completely open to how important these tools are! I loved reading your post and I will continue to view your page! Thanks so much for sharing! I’m so happy to hear that you’re safe. It is very encouraging to hear your positivity through these words despite the hardships that you have endured!
    Mary Ashley York´s last blog post ..Blog Assignment 8

  10. March 23, 2011

    I’ve been following your updates on Twitter, but just got around to reading this post. What an amazing story.

    It’s important to recognize your own privilege in a situation, but to not beat yourself up about making the decision to use that to keep your family safe. I can’t imagine what must be running through your mind over the last few weeks – from the basics like staying safe to wondering how you can help to those feelings of guilt you mentioned. It’s a lot to juggle mentally all within the context of a natural disaster, but I’m happy you have this place and people online you trust and with whom you can share all of this.

    I would be happy to hear about Twitter through the lens of public safety. So many public safety movements and campaigns are based on education and being literate in Twitter allows you to educate yourself and create a network from which you can learn every day and depend on for information. I hope your proposal to tweak your presentation is accepted, because it is timely and important.
    Mary Worrell´s last blog post ..Giving myself room to learn…and my film-making debut

  11. March 25, 2011

    Wow, that’s quite a story you told there, Kim. Sound very adventurous but at the same time dangerous and nerve-wracking. I used to be annoyed about twitter and all this stuff, because it often is very dull to read everything certain people think, but in your case it really seemed to be a great thing to have. Just shows me, that such stuff can be important, too.
    I’m glad you made it out there unharmed.

  12. March 26, 2011

    Thanks for sharing that you are safe and for sharing such heartfelt events. We, my family and my students, still send thoughts your way and will follow your lead for how to find accurate news and ways to help.

  13. April 1, 2011

    Kim, thank you for your beautiful words that so eloquently describe your experience and feelings. My thoughts and prayers are with you and for the incredible people of Japan. Take a deep breath, enjoy where you are knowing that your support and strength will be needed when you get back to school surrounded by your kids again.

  14. April 17, 2011

    My name is Jacob Webb and I am a student in Dr. Strange’s EDM 310 class at the University of South Alabama. I was assigned to your blog as a part of a Comments for Teachers Assignment. I think that your calmness and peace about this situation is amazing. I think that one of the reasons for this is that you have such a positive outlook on your situation. Mnay people would be upset because they were having to make the decision to leave and have a negative outlook. Many would think they were unfortunate because this had happened. I think your outlook that you are indeed fortunate is great.

  15. Mandy Davis permalink
    April 18, 2011

    Wow, what a story! You are very fortunate. What are the chances that you would be in both places at the time of these disasters. Your plans are very thorough. Glad to see you are safe!

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