Personal Space

Starting small. It’s a recurring theme. (After the Quake)

I am starting my fundraising effort small. I like to start everything small.

I woke up on Friday morning and picked up my iPhone to check the overnight feed on Twitter. This is what I do every morning. My Twittelator only goes back 200 tweets, and there were lots of tweets while I was asleep, so I was missing the tweets from immediately after the earthquake struck. Many of the tweets from Japanese celebrities I follow didn’t fully make sense without the critical context I. However, reading between lines, I learned that there was a catastrophic earthquake somewhere in Japan.

I proceeded to call my parents. They live in a suburb of Tokyo. At this point, I was still half asleep in bed. As I expected from my experience during Hurricane Katrina, the phone call did not go through.

Without making any conscious decisions (as I was still half asleep in bed), I checked my Facebook on iPhone. There, the first thing I saw on my timeline was my mother posting on my brother’s wall asking for his welfare, and telling him that she and my father were fine. What a relief. However, at this point, I wasn’t fully understanding the magnitude of the devastation, and thus wasn’t fully appreciating how lucky my family and I were. After all, all my quake information came from the partially complete overnight twitter feed.

Subsequently, I decided to get up and find out more about the earthquake. However, the old habit made me go to Facebook, instead of cnn.com, as soon as I turned on my laptop. I immediately saw my cousin in Tokyo on line, and started a Facebook chat. I learned that she was camping out in her office as all the commuter trains stopped operation after the quake. It was about 8:30 PM in Tokyo. She filled me in on the safety of other relatives. They were all fine.

At this point, I was finally fully awake. The magnitude of this natural disaster finally sank in.

When the reality sank in, I began to realize how lucky I was that my parents and I had multiple lines of communication.

When Hurricane Katrina hit my neighborhood, I was in Washington DC on business. My husband and kids were home. That morning, while walking around the Washington DC convention center, I kept talking to my husband on the cell phone until his cell signals finally cut off. That was a few hours before the eye of the storm went right over my house. Several hours later, I learned that the storm surge was extensive and destructive. I feared the worst. I called everyone I knew. Nobody answered. All phones with 504, 985, and 228 area codes were useless, regardless of whether you were still in the area of you were evacuated. I called the Washington DC offices of Senator Landrieu and Congressman Jindal. The staffers there were just as desperate as I was trying to reach their own families in Louisiana.

That night, I kept calling. Nobody answered. After midnight, however, a call came from one of my former summer students. By then, he had graduated from high school and was attending University of Texas in Dallas. He was doing the same thing I was doing. He was desperately trying to reach his parents.

There was no flight to the vicinity of the Northern Gulf of Mexico. Rental car companies were not allowing any of their cars south of the Tennessee-Mississippi/Alabama boarder.

My two sisters-in-law, one in Pittsburgh and the other in California, offered to drive home with me. Diana in Pittsburgh came to DC to pick me up, and Tricia in CA flew in to meet us in Pittsburgh. We bought gas cans (because we feared that no gas station south of Memphis was operating – which turned out to be true).

Ken, Diana’s husband, rented a satellite phone. It was very expensive, but it would allow him to stay in touch with her as she drove into the vast no-cell signal zone of the Northern Gulf of Mexico.

While we were preparing for this journey, I heard from my ex summer student again. His mother worked for an offshore radio communication company. She was able to get in touch with him via a satellite phone she got from her office. Her house was flooded, but she and her husband were otherwise well, busy cleaning up the mess. This gave me hope. I asked him to ask his parents to go check on my family if possible. A day later, I heard back from him – he said that his mother bicycled over to my house (everyone was conserving gas), and my husband and kids were doing OK, eating MRI from the military, ripping the flooded carpet. This was the first tangible proof that my family was OK. I cried for a long time. This was about 5 days after the storm.

Three days after the quake, I am still immensely grateful that I was able to learn my parents’ safety within minutes of learning about the quake. I didn’t have to spend agonizing hours (or days) trying to reach my parents. I am glad I had trained my mother to use Facebook regularly (by posting her grandchildren’s photos and videos regularly). I would like to send flowers to Mark Zuckerberg when I get a chance.

The phone signals were restored by Saturday. My mother called and we had a nice long chat about our relatives’ whereabouts.

With all that in mind, I am starting a fundraising effort. It will be small at first. It may remain small, but it will make a positive, tangible contribution to the restoration effort.

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