The last devastating earthquake Turkey experienced was in 1999, back when it was still largely an analogue world, email was in its infancy and Mark Zuckerberg was just another high school dreamer. As a reporter I had to lug a satellite phone around to dictate bleak daily missives from disaster-stricken western Turkey (20,000 people had died, entire avenues were wiped out) because there was no other means of communication. Official relief took days to arrive. And when it did, it was often inadequate and poorly planned.
Contrast that to yesterday's disaster. Hours after a 7.2 earthquake struck Van, in eastern Turkey, technologies whirred into motion that would have been unimaginable back then. Google has already reconfigured the person-finding tool it used in Haiti and Chile, allowing people to both request and post information about the safety of loved ones missing in the rubble. (Their system is currently tracking some 2,000 records.) Hashtags like #van, #deprem (earthquake in Turkish) trended instantly, and are being tweeted hundreds of times per second as people share information on how to help and what to donate. Groups like the Red Crescent (the Turkish equivalent of the Red Cross) and AKUT, a search-and-rescue organization have enabled one-click SMS donation services. On Facebook, users share updated information on aid requests – winter clothing, insulin, diapers — as filed by people on the ground in Van and have started pages listing bus and freight companies that are delivering aid packages free of charge.
The sheer number of people with their eyes on the wire creates pressure on companies to respond –and quickly. ‘Van needs drinking water. Still waiting for a water company to step up!' read one tweet on the #van page. Shortly afterwards three water firms announced pledges of shipments to the region. Under similar pressure, several airlines have lowered fares to Van while a heater company said it was sending 1,000 electric heaters to the region.
Then there are the homegrown initiatives. Ahmet Tezcan, a Turkish reporter with close to 16,000 followers, posted a tweet offering his spare flat to a family in need and suggesting others do the same. Within hours, 20,000 people had emailed the ‘My house is your house' (#EvimEvindirVan) campaign, offering their homes or spare rooms. The campaign's success has been such that the Istanbul governor's office has taken charge. There is now a 24-hour hotline where people can apply to stay or host.
Social media is not, of course, a substitute for the long-term and difficult work that undoubtedly lies ahead in Van where thousands are now homeless and winter is fast encroaching. One telling tweet asked for Kurdish-speaking volunteer psychologists (the region is largely Kurdish) to get in touch. Nor should it make us complacent as to the impact of our efforts. But as a reminder of what human kindness can achieve, it too has its place.