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Social media get quake reports out fast

The messages came in French and English in the minutes and hours after a magnitude 7 earthquake struck Haiti on Jan. 12: “heavy earth quake right now!” “I see at a distance clouds of dust.” “Hundreds of dead body in the collapse of Hotel Montana.” “parts of the Palace have collapsed.” “Phones seem to be out. . . . Communication is at a standstill.”

Before authorities could begin to assess the damage, before reporters and aid workers could arrive on the scene, Twitter and other social media sites offered a quick portrait of the damage. With most of the area’s power and phone lines down, a handful of Haitians used cellphones and some working Internet connections to report, in words and pictures, what they saw of the quake’s devastation.

California authorities saw the same pattern in the minutes after a quake in Eureka earlier this month.

The ease with which their comments were transmitted around the world underscores the growing role that “self-reporting” plays in the immediate aftermath of catastrophes and how information technology has changed the way we think about disaster response.

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Seismic safety experts remain somewhat skeptical about the accuracy of self-reported data. But the information is so valuable that seismologists are jumping on board.

The United States Geological Survey established the highly popular Did You Feel It? website to generate seismic intensity maps based on residents’ reports of a temblor’s intensity. And it’s developing a program to track Twitter feeds in the immediate aftermath of an earthquake.

Though there is no way to vouch for the accuracy of each data point, the speed with which officials and others can gather on-the-ground reports is revolutionary.

When a magnitude 6.7 quake hit Northridge early in the morning in 1994, it took authorities and the news media hours to spread out around Los Angeles to assess the situation. It wasn’t until after daybreak that the full scope of the damage became clear.

By contrast, when the 6.5 quake hit Eureka this month, people were Twittering what they saw within seconds: “Glass everywhere.” “Former Downtowner motel lost many bricks and structure is buckling.” “Our pantry was shaken open and emptied.”

Local officials said they got their first snapshot of the damage from social media, hours before authorities could comb the area and make a report.

But the quality of the self-reported accounts varied. Some were unclear, others colored by emotion. “It’s relatively fast but very vague information,” said Douglas Givens, a scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey.

Early examinations of the Twitter feeds coming out of Haiti show that although many people were posting early and frequently, only a limited number of people had access to the technology necessary to make such reports.

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Those who can access the Internet in the wake of an earthquake are using satellite connections, according to several sources, and relying on batteries and solar panels to provide power.

Andrew Lih, a professor of new media studies at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, said people’s use of such technologies “is very much tied to what financial system they’re in. In Haiti, it’s not a very high level.”

Lih said that many of the people using social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook to comment about the earthquake in Haiti are probably expatriatesor other people outside the country. In Eureka, by contrast, he said, there are more indigenous users of the social networking tools.

Another factor is a country’s access to the Internet. Lih said the “Internet penetration rate” in Haiti was relatively low. In the United States, the rate is fairly high.

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Quake experts and other disaster-management officials caution that although self-reporting offers many benefits, it also holds some risks. Some cellphone networks work but have problems with congestion and connection. Because of the way such programs locate people, it is hard to use them to pinpoint exact locations.

And there are issues about “credibility and authenticity,” said Devin Gales, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Fire Department, which maintains a robust presence on social media sites. For example, some people reported feeling the Eureka quake in Southern California, which experts doubt was possible.

Paul Earle, a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said that weighing the benefits of Twitter and other social media sites is a matter of speed versus accuracy. “There’s a short time window before we have scientifically verified location and magnitude and maps of shaking and reports that come in,” he said. “That can take some time. Basically, Twitter can give you some personal accounts of what’s going on in that window.”

For now, several Twitter accounts rebroadcast the USGS quake notifications and the agency is developing a prototype system to track Twitter responses to earthquakes.

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That system would have limitations, said Earle. For example, USGS tracking of earthquake-related Tweets out of the Caribbean in the first 16 minutes after the Haiti quake show a definite spike but did not include messages written in French or Haitian Creole. “As the project progresses, we will include more and more languages,” Earle said.

Twitter traffic from the Eureka quake, which caused more than $20 million in damage, was more robust because far more people had access to the necessary technology.

Amy Stewart, a writer and co-owner of Eureka Books, immediately got on her Apple iPhone to post updates on what she saw as well as photos of the damage. Her initial goal was to reach friends in the Eureka area, but her information ended up helping to build the first picture of the temblor’s toll.

“These tools are becoming more and more useful,” Stewart said. “Twitter was as accurate as anything else in terms of what was going on,” she said.

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Posts from Stewart and others convinced Eureka Mayor Virginia Bass that social networking was a useful link for people in the immediate aftermath of the quake. She wants the city, which has frequent seismic activity, to explore using social media for future emergency situations.

And Stewart, who Twitters as @amyeureka, said she was amused when, 24 hours after the quake there, city officials said they were going to get the word out that Eureka was open for business, hoping for mention in newspapers the next day. “I was thinking,” she said, “we already got the word out. We don’t communicate like that anymore.”

cara.dimassa@latimes.com

ari.bloomekatz@latimes.com

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