Using Technology to Stay Connected During the Chilean Earthquake
By Andrea Syrtash
March 19, 2010
A few days ago, I returned from two weeks' vacation in Chile. Chile is a beautiful country, but I never intended to be there for more than a week. When the airport was destroyed after a magnitude 8.5 earthquake in Santiago (8.8 at the epicenter), I had little choice.
I was brushing my teeth well after 3 in the morning, after a fun night on the town, when the earthquake started. I immediately tried to recall the contents of the earthquake emergency binder I had once been handed at my old job in San Francisco, but my mind went to mush. No matter how many drills you may have, you never knows how you will react during a natural disaster. You simply cannot decide how you are going to feel before you feel it.
My first instinct when the floor started to shake was to find my sister, who was sleeping in the room beside me. Together, we ran to another room where less furniture would have the chance to fly by and held hands. My friend's large, sturdy house felt like a ship in rough waters rocking side to side. The noise of slamming doors and rattling windows was piercing.
Once my sister and I assumed our positions during the earthquake, I felt surprisingly calm. I had an out-of-body experience where I watched myself try to get a grip and then...a deeply internal moment where I said a prayer. After close to two minutes of extreme activity, the earthquake stopped.
More shaking came for me in the hours following what would become the fifth-largest earthquake in recorded history. My body shook uncontrollably, and I kept asking it to please stop, but it wouldn't listen. I returned to my debris-filled bed (part of the ceiling on my pillow), and attempted to return to get a few moments of sleep. Before my sister and I could close our eyes, though, my sister turned on her BlackBerry so we could send a "We are okay" message to our parents, my husband and her boyfriend. We wanted them to wake up with our news before they heard about it from any other source. We also used my sister's BlackBerry to update our status on Facebook. Throughout the experience, I felt most calm once I was connected with those I loved at home and could read a few of their notes of comfort. Facebook and email were invaluable to me on my recent trip.
How a text message helped Andrea
I'm not one of those people who hates my TV and won't eat sugar. I'm not at peace if I spend more than a few waking hours off email. I prefer kickboxing to yoga. I think you get the point. I would love to be someone who declares, "It was liberating to be without email and phone contact for a week!" But I would be lying. Being offline after the earthquake was unsettling and upsetting. Prior to the earthquake, I was happy I was in touch with friends and family to tell them about the Andes. I like being connected. Being in touch with people I care about—and having a line of contact and communication— is vital to me.
In the days after the earthquake, phone lines were down and there was no Internet access...but my sister's phone was charged, and we stole a few moments each day to check in when we could. My husband texted one night to say "I love you," and I held the powered-off phone in my hands when I went to sleep that night.
What does that say about me or our culture? I don't know. Admittedly, I'm dependent on technology, and these platforms to keep in touch regardless of whether there is news to report. Most of the time, I use the Internet for research, to coordinate plans and to share happy updates. In this case, I used it to communicate updates in a city that was powered off and to glean news about the country I was in when I couldn't access the television. Having power on our portable phones gave me tremendous piece of mind, and I'm so glad we traveled with the option to be connected if we wanted to be—and when we needed to be.
Now that I'm home, I'm thinking of my friend who is still there, enduring more than 200 aftershocks and trying to lend tremendous assistance as he works as a diplomat. I'm thinking of the hundreds and thousands of displaced Chileans and family members who are grieving and searching, who aren't able to share updates or to quickly check in. The news may have moved on in this country, but in Chile, Haiti and other areas of the world affected by extreme trauma and severe conditions, the news is still very much live. For those who can't reach out to us now, I hope they know we still care and that we are still connected.
Andrea Syrtash is an author, advice columnist and the host of On Dating, produced by NBC Digital Studios. Her advice has been featured on NBC's Today, USA Today and NPR, among others. She has contributed to over a dozen relationship-advice books. Her new book, He's Just Not Your Type (And That's a Good Thing), will be published in April 2010. For more, please visit AndreaSyrtash.com