One Man’s Story: How Twitter Helped During the Tsunami

In a heart-wrenching story of the hope and devastation during the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, a professor and his student have begun analyzing tweets from regions hardest hit by the natural disaster. And, despite emotional hurdles, they’ve uncovered some touching stories of hope and salvation amid a tragedy.

Adam Acar, Associate Professor at Kobe City University, was sitting in a Starbucks when the news of the earthquake began filtering in. He didn’t hear about it on TV though – the first bits of news came in through tweets:

“Bored with reading a bunch of outdated mass media theories about the connection between technology, communication and social change, I started checking my Twitter timeline. One message read “At Tokyo Narita airport Terminal 1. Big, HUGE earthquake, halls shaking like crazy.” This was enough to divert my full attention to what’s happening. The second tweet was from a famous blogger from Kansai region with a twitpic showing a huge crack in an asphalt road. The third message included a link to live NHK breaking news story on UStream. Though I was fully engaged, I was neither aware that I was using twitter as my sole news source nor I knew the disaster unfolding on the northern side of the island, was going to be this big. Soon after, my twitter timeline was flooded with warnings, live streams and the heart-wrenching images of the tsunami…”

Acar kept following the devastation unfold on Twitter in the days following the initial catastrophe. Despite his emotional outbursts at reading some of the tweets, he turned to one of his undergraduate students, Yuya Muraki, to help him make sense of what was being posted on Twitter.

They conducted research on tweets from the region surrounding Kesennuma and Miyagi Prefecture, two areas struck by the tsunami. Acar notes that the pair found it emotionally difficult to read the tweets from those regions asking for help, but they managed to put together an overview of what Twitter was being used for during and after the tsunami.

Most of the tweets they uncovered were either warnings, requests for help, or informing others of the tsunami, fires, and general communications.

They discovered a forward-thinking official Twitter account from the city of Kesennuma, which sent out multiple updates about the earthquake, the tsunami, and how to evacuate the area. Other tweets, from individuals trapped in buildings, were harder to read. And hundreds were reports about what was happening around the area, such as fires, earthquakes, buildings being destroyed and explosions.

While many tweets were panicked or terribly sad, the academic pair did uncover a 31 year-old man’s rescue via Twitter. He had sent out 17 tweets to various followers, and by including his location, he was rescued by the Japanese Army – but not after tweeting his resignation that he might die. His tweets are raw and emotional, and have been translated by Acar and Muraki:

@ hinoyoujinn
March 11th

How big was the earthquake? It was fairly big. #kesennuma

The sea level is falling very rapidly. #kesennuma

I’m on the roof of Sato Hospital near from Kesennuma-Minami station. #kesennuma

@sa… Everyone is on the roof of high buildings. The telephone is not available since even houses are being flowed.

A building exploded. It’s south of Kesennuma-Minami station. #kesennuma

The oil is leaking and the flame is getting bigger. I can’t escape. #kesennuma

Another tsunami have come. #kesennuma

@mo… The water level is about the height of the 2nd story and it’s impossible. If the flame comes to this place, there’s no hope.

No rescue. #kesennuma

I may die. #kesennuma

If the flame comes. there’s no way to escape. #kesennuma

Why no one comes to help me? #kesennuma

I can see people in the flames and smoke. #kesennuma

I’m still alive. #kesennuma

@ta… is also under the water.

I think twitter is very helpful though this may not be a good and relevant comment for this situation. #kesennuma

The flame has been barely controlled. #kesennuma

March 13th

I barely survived. I was rescued by SFD (Japanese Army) and met my co-workers. I was taken to my hometown, Morioka. I’m planning to go back Kesennnuma tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. Sorry for making you worried about me. #kesennuma Thank you very much.