How Social Media Helped Me Through the Hawaiian Tsunami Warning


Share on LinkedIn

I have been part of the social media generation – professionally and personally – for a number of years, but last week was the first time I found myself social networking in the midst of a potential crisis situation – the Hawaiian Islands Tsunami Warning while vacationing in Maui.

Being jarred out of bed at 6 a.m. on a Saturday during vacation by the sound of emergency sirens blaring across the island is not something I will soon forget. The Tsunami Warning announcement slipped under our door from the Maui Westin Resort staff didn’t offer much comfort and advice either, especially given the hotel wasn’t even built the last time a major tsunami hit this island in 1960. To make matters even more concerning, our oceanfront room was roughly 1,000 feet from the pristine West Maui beach.

This was not the way I envisioned spending our last day of vacation.

The warning estimated the tsunami would strike Maui at 11:40 a.m., three hours before our scheduled flight back to Boston, a city where people would have trouble pronouncing the word tsunami let alone survive one. I wasn’t sure what to do at first, but I immediately flipped open my laptop and started searching for Hawaiian emergency sites before I even turned on the TV to see what local newscasters and CNN were reporting.

Working for a social media listening company over the years has taught me that the fastest way to find out the latest is from the wisdom and information-sharing of the online crowd. As Google loaded sites onto my laptop, I grabbed my Blackberry and headed for the hotel lobby to see what the in-person crowd had to say.

Maybe it was my previous background as a reporter for United Press International that kicked in, where you always put out snippets of breaking news as they occurred, but by the time the elevator reached the ground floor I posted my first update on Twitter.

The lobby was filling up fast with other information-seeking tourists and it was easy to see the hotel staff was ill-prepared for an event of this magnitude. Nervous-looking staff at the registration desk were telling people that the coastal highway leading inland and to the airport was closed by emergency officials at 7 a.m., something I found out later from people online was untrue. I thought it was pretty ironic that Maui was shutting down what they had designated to be one of the island’s main evacuation routes. Any thought about fleeing to higher ground or getting to the airport was now a moot point.

When the hotel broadcast an emergency announcement that all guests would be moved above the 4th story of each tower in preparation for the first wave, I really got to thinking this could be the real deal. We’ve all seen the video of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

So while some people started heading to a nearby convenience store to stock up on supplies, I returned to my hotel room with the idea of riding out whatever the storm might bring and getting as much information as possible from others on Maui and across the other Hawaiian Islands. The first waves were scheduled to hit the Big Island 20 minutes prior to Maui, so finding live Web cams of that area seemed like the place to start, particularly ones on the west side near Keauhou Bay that matched up to our west side location in Lahaina, Maui.

As I sped through finding new sites to track – the Hawaiian Civil Defense, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, and The NY Times Live Twitter feed – local TV newscasters were having trouble reporting anything of substance. In the meantime, Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle looked like she was auditioning for ‘Amateur Hour’, apparently with technical broadcast issues before finally opting for a blurry-image address via Skype.

Over the next two hours leading up to the estimated arrival time of the first wave, I shared everything that seemed relevant from what I heard on-site or from other people in the same situation as us, including updates on road closures, businesses shutting down, planned emergency power outages, and unusual water conditions in other areas of the island. Like any emergency situation, there is always a ton of bad information put out by people, but I found the good far outweighed the bad. I was also surprised that Starwood Hotels, owners of the Maui Weston, did not leverage their Twitter presence at all to broadcast emergency information to guests at their multiple Hawaiian resorts.

When the deadline finally passed, people started to finally lighten up, but it wasn’t until an NOAA official announced that “Hawaii had dodged a bullet” that everyone really started to relax, an announcement shared online roughly 20 minutes before it was carried by CNN.

Within minutes of my first online update, I began to receive dozens of reactions from friends, family and many strangers too, wishing us the best of luck, offering safety tips, and thanks for the updates from the island. It was really comforting to know so many people were listening and cared enough to send a message. I’m hoping that was the first and last time I’ll be part of such an event.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Mike Spataro
Mike is a senior vice president with Visible Technologies, a leading provider of social media listening, measurement and online brand activation. Mike has designed and implemented first and second generation social media strategies and programs for some of Visible Tech's growing roster of global clients, including American Express, FedEx, TD Bank and Kraft Foods.


Please use comments to add value to the discussion. Maximum one link to an educational blog post or article. We will NOT PUBLISH brief comments like "good post," comments that mainly promote links, or comments with links to companies, products, or services.

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here