Case Study: How The Tsunami Probably Hit More Than Just Hawaii

Hawaii Tsunami Info

I’m not originally from Hawaii, but I did spend a great deal of my years there visiting friends and family. Needless to say, I have a lot invested in this island state and when something impacts it, I’d really like to keep watch and pay attention. This past weekend just reinforced that belief with the impact of the earthquake in Chile.

It all started on Saturday morning when I woke up and checked my Blackberry for any messages from the night before. Turned out that I read a couple of tweets on @BreakingNews saying that there was an earthquake in Chile and that a tsunami was going to reach Hawaii. That instantly got me worried and I began calling several people of interest, including my parents. Afterwards, I checked online to try and find more information and there was none. The Weather Channel, CNN and even FOX News didn’t really cover the tsunami except for it being an afterthought of the unfortunate earthquake in Chile. And while that was rightfully tragic, I was frankly more interested in hearing about what was being done to protect people on the islands. I was pretty distraught that this didn’t merit coverage on mainstream media until I came across a few tweets on Twitter with a unusual hashtag – #hitsunami.

Started by digital media designer and Hawaii local, John Garcia, this hashtag soon became the citizen journalist way of communicating to the world just what was happening in the state. From the very beginning of this natural disaster, Garcia knew that something had to be done and starting at 1:25am Hawaii time, the project started and he estimated it took him 14 minutes to get it up and running and at minimal cost. Incorporating a live feed on UStream.tv from a local news anchor to conversations happening in the chat room, the site produced some pretty fascinating results:

Initially, the word about this project was spread through word of mouth and via Twitter, but through the course of the day, mainstream media caught wind and it grew in prominence. With sites like CNN, FOX News and even the BBC taking an interest, Garcia soon found out that this one-day social media event was going to need to be maintained. And that’s just one of the lessons he learned from this ordeal. Soon after gaining prominence, like most large websites, the hitsunami.info website suffered a DDOS attack, but thanks to the efforts by Angry Hosting, the site was only down for a few minutes and a mirror site was quickly established to handle the load and prevent another outage.

It’s interesting to note that during a crisis like this, the government websites would be the most heavily trafficked in order to find evacuation routes online. Garcia told me that one of the things that he learned was that there were a lot of complaints about these servers lagging due to the traffic – they just weren’t prepared for such an onslaught of people wanting the information. However, by gathering backup copies of evacuation maps and even hosting them on “high-capacity servers”, Garcia helped to alleviate the traffic and provided alternative locations for people to download these maps. In addition, the local news station broadcasted on the hitsunami.info website was chosen because there were actually few options for them to choose from – this particular news station, KHON2, was one of the rare stations to air 24-hour news coverage about the tsunami.

But did you know that by tweeting excessively, you could be rate limited and, as a result, find yourself unable and locked out of your Twitter account? That’s exactly what happened in this situation. Several outlets and other local tweeters were found guilty of exceeding these limits and as a result could not publish news that others might find interesting. Garcia mentioned that eventually someone at Twitter found out about this problem and helped alleviate the issue – but it’s interesting that this kind of situation can happen even after the microblogging’s applicability in citizen journalism was well-proven during the Iranian elections, the Miracle on the Hudson, the Presidential election of Barack Obama, and many other significant events.

Luckily, there wasn’t a real disaster to hit Hawaii…this time, but while there were tangible problems with the disaster preparation plan in Hawaii, there are also things that we can take away from John Garcia’s approach to social media in a time of crisis/disaster and what we can do to maximize the reach, but still be sensitive to the nature of the scenario.

By Ken Yeung

Ken Yeung is a journalist fascinated with the stories of the tech industry and internet culture. He's currently the Technology Editor at Flipboard, where he observes what's happening in the space while also identifying new topics of interest. In addition, he co-hosts the weekly internet show "The Created Economy," which focuses on what's happening to creators and influencers. Previously, he was a reporter for VentureBeat and The Next Web, covering tech startups, the industry's innovations and funding. Ken also has a newsletter you should also subscribe to called "Filed."