[Chile] A Hill is a Transitional Accommodation to Stress

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I spent just about the entire weekend just about entirely offline – something I hope to keep up as February slides into March, days lengthen, and skinny jeans and boots give way to summer dresses and sandals.

So it came as quite a shock to turn the internet switch to on and discover that Chile was struck by a 8.8-magnitude earthquake. Scrolling through the photos at Boston.com’s Big Picture it is almost impossible to believe that the death count is still under 1,000. Surely that number will rise over the next few days and weeks.

Fortunately all of my friends in Chile are OK and, as would be expected, the digerati among them are using their blogs and Twitter accounts to publish news and coordinate relief efforts. On Twitter the tag “#buscapersonas” (“look for people”) is a real-time stream of Chileans using Twitter to search for their missing family and friends. It is hard to sort through all the re-tweets and I’m not sure if it’s the most effective method of sharing information about missing people, but most certainly there will eventually be a graduate student thesis to help determine exactly that. The most useful Twitter account I’ve seen so far for up-to-the-minute news about the impact of the Chilean quake is @Cooperativa of the radio station by the same name (which you can listen to live online). Already Juan Arellano has an impressive blog post (in Spanish) looking at the positive and negative roles of social networks in the humanitarian response:

Mientras tanto, en lo que corresponde a internet y redes sociales se está destacando el uso e importancia que ha tenido, por ejemplo Twitter, para diversas funciones aparte de informar, la principal quizás como herramienta para la búsqueda de desaparecidos y lanzar peticiones de ayuda. Ha habido notas al respecto en diarios como La Nación: El rol clave de Twitter y Facebook y El Mercurio: Terremoto de Chile es lo más comentado en Twitter que recojen muchas de las experiencias habidas en el uso de esta herramienta.

Sin embargo esto puede prestarse también para bromas pesadas y engaños, como aparentemente lo es el caso del usuario @biodome10 quien estuvo tuiteando pidiendo ayuda: “im atrapado en mi casa. enviar ayuda por favor # Chile”, pero que si uno revisa su perfil en twitter verá que es el mismo relacionado a este caso de falsa noticia de una muerte. Muchos usuarios de Twitter retuitearon de buena fé sus mensajes, incluso el diario limeño El Comercio en primera instancia también cayó en el engaño aunque luego rectificaron su informe.

Meanwhile, the importance of social networks like Twitter is being recognized for their various uses beyond merely spreading information, especially as a tool to search for the missing, and to post messages seeking help. There have been articles about this in newspapers like La Nación – “The key role of Twitter and Facebook” – and in El Mercurio – “Earthquake in Chile is the most discussed topic on Twitter” – which collect many of the experiences that have taken place via Twitter.

However, these tools can also lend themselves to practical jokes and hoaxes as was apparent in the case of Twitter user @biodome10 who published a message on Twitter asking for help: “I’m trapped in my house, please send help #Chile.” But if you review his profile on Twitter you find that he was the same person involved in the false report about an athlete’s death. Many Twitter users re-posted his messages out of good faith including the Peruvian newspaper El Comercio, which at first fell for the trap, but later corrected the article.

Of course the folks at Ushahidi had an installation up tracking events related to the earthquake and aftershocks within hours. Some developers at Google quickly launched their Person Finder app for the Chile quake, which claims to be tracking nearly 35,000 entries. (Another installation for Haiti is tracking nearly 60,000 entries.)

At Global Voices Eddie Ávila and his team have done a truly amazing job sifting through all the information about the quake and humanizing it so that you really understand what it was like to be there, and what it will take to rebuild. I especially recommend Eddie’s (relatively brief) posts on “The Legacy of the 1960 Earthquake in Valdivia” and “Tsunami Scare on Easter Island.” Juliana Rincón has collected YouTube videos of the earthquake. This one says a lot:


The death toll will continue to rise, there will be a lot more punditry about why Chile fared better than Haiti, and a lot more analysis (and, yes, hype) about the role of social networks in disaster response. But in the end Chile will come back. The slim stretch of nation state has been through much worse in its relatively short history.

I realize that – aside from the predictable op-eds – today’s news will already be gone by tomorrow. In fact, as I type out these concluding paragraphs a part of me wonders why I’m writing this at all.

I suppose this is basically a journal entry, but one that can’t exist apart from the web of information, opinions, and relationships that is the internet. I’ve been to Chile three times – first in 2001, again in 2002, and for the third time in March of 2008. I’ll be heading back this May for our (almost) annual Global Voices Summit. This blog post has, in fact, taken me over two hours to write because I keep getting lost in old photographs, blog posts, and journal entries from my visits to Chile. Over the years I’ve become increasingly attached to the country despite an initial bad impression. I am excited to go back and see old friends, re-visit some of my favorite neighborhoods, bars, and cafes.

The earthquake in Chile and the overwhelming online response to it is also yet another reminder that “international news” hasn’t gone away, it’s just changed. For anyone who cares about Chile – or earthquakes for that matter – the information and the context will be there, waiting to be digested. In fact, a sizable community now exists of individuals whose attention and efforts migrate from one crisis to the next.

This evening I went for a long – a very long – run along the Pacific coast, north toward Malibu where Joan Didion lived much of her life. In The Year of Magical Thinking she describes how she found meaning in life through geology, especially earthquakes:

That I could find meaning in the intensely personal nature of my life as a wife and mother did not seem inconsistent with finding meaning in the vast indifference of geology; the two systems existed for me on a parallel tracks that occasionally converged, notably during earthquakes

I don’t know why I had so much energy, why I was able to run for miles and miles without tiring. Most of the Santa Monica’s beaches are endless stretches of white sand and volleyball nets, but as you head north toward the green hills of Topanga Canyon the geography shifts suddenly and sandstone cliffs practically hug Highway 1.

The earthquake in Chile, writes the New York Times, took place where the Nazca tectonic plate is sliding underneath the South American plate. “The two are converging at a rate of about three and a half inches a year.” Three and a half inches a year. So slow. So fast.

In the final pages of The Year of Magical Thinking Didion writes:

As the grandchild of a geologist I learned to anticipate the absolute mutability of hills and waterfalls and even islands. When a hill slumps into the ocean I see the order in it. When a 5.2 on the Richter Scale wrenches the writing table in my own room in my house in my own particular Welbeck Street I keep on typing. A hill is a transitional accommodation to stress, and ego may be a similar accommodation. A waterfall is a self-correcting maladjustment of stream to structure, and so, for all I know is technique. The very island to which Inez Victor returned in the spring of 1975 – Oahu, an emergent post-erosional land mass along the Hawaiian Ridge – is a temporary feature, and every rainfall or tremor along the Pacific plates alters its shape and shortens its tenure as Crossroads of the Pacific.

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