The Last Tweet Before the Tsunami Hit

It was just a usual Friday afternoon and I was studying about the use of social networks in Japan at the recently renovated Sturbucks which was originally built by European settlers at the end of 1800s on the skirts of Rokko Mountain. Bored with reading a bunch of outdated mass media theories about the connection between technology, communication and social change, I started checking my Twitter timeline.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…

The 9.00 scale earthquake that hit Japan on March 11 at 2:45 PM (5:45 AM GMT) was not only the strongest in Japan’s history but also the 5th biggest ever recorded*. Tsunamis caused by the tremors already devastated most of the coastline in 3 prefectures and wiped out two towns off the map, claiming the lives of thousands and forcing more than 500,000 people to live in shelters. The Japanese prime minister Naoto Kan declared the incident as the biggest disaster after WWII. Four days after the quake, there are 3000 confirmed deaths and 15,000 unaccounted for; not to mention 4 explosions in an earthquake hit nuclear facility and extremely high radiation levels in the surrounding areas.

Seeing the catastrophic images of the tsunami, watching the videos of how giant waves flattened the towns, reading the news about nuclear explosions, I felt like going through trauma. When I checked my twitter timeline three days after the quake, I experienced all those feelings again. Then I thought, checking the tweets of the victims might help us better understand what exactly was happening and how they felt when the waves hit. I and my student Yuya Muraki decided to analyze the tweets sent from 15-mile radius of Kesennuma and Miyagi Prefecture: two disaster-struck areas (we entered these two keywords separately in twitter advanced search). It was such a challenging task as both of us were burst into tears when reading tweets asking for help.

Most of the tweets were about a) warning b) requesting help and c) informing (tsunami, fire, and communication).

When it comes to warning , one account stoot out and got retweeted many times which was @bosai_kesennuma: an official twitter account set up by the local authorities. Apparently the city sent out several tsunami warnings. Here are some of the tweets from @bosai_kesennuma

  • An alarm of BIG tsunamiCoast of Miyagi prefecture. Escape to any high place.
  • 6 meters tsunami is expected to come.  Immediately, escape to any high place.
  • We’ve been having frequent aftershocks.  A tsunami alarm has been announced.Escape immediately.
  • A big tsunami is coming to the downtown.  Escape!
  • We’ve been having frequent aftershocks. Even the downdown of Kesennuma has been soaked by tsunami.
  • Tsunami is coming to near the City Hospital.
  • Tsunami hit us again.  It came to the downtown.  Escape to any high place.
  • We’ve got information that the second wave is bigger than the first.  Escape immediately.
  • Areas from Miyawaki book store to the fish market are burning.  Dont go back

The tweets about help requests were heart-breaking. People mostly asked for help either for themselves or their loved ones by indicating location.

  • We’re on the 7th floor of Inawashiro Hospital, but bacause of the risen sea level, we’re stuck.  Help us!!
  • I may die.  Why no one comes to help me?
  • Thirty people are stuck at Ozaki shrine.  It seems the roads are shut down.  Anybody, please call police and fire department.  Anyways, I’m OK.
  • Help my younger brother.  He called me that he is under a broken house and since I live in a remote place, I can’t go there.  His address is…. (including building/apt. number).

People constantly reported what was happening to them and what was happening in their environment:

  • A big earthquake!
  • Oh my God!  My house might collapse
  • I’m barely alive.  I was about to die.
  • Buidings are burning and this is like a battlefield.
  • Kesennuma has been completely destroyed.
  • I hear the tsunami alarm.  I’m gonna escape.
  • The sea level is falling rapidly.  I think we’re gonna have tsunami soon.
  • A building exploded.  It’s south of Kesennuma-Minami station
  • I can see people in the flames and smoke.
  • In front of the Fish Market is burning.

Although there is always the risk of the spread of false information because of irresponsible users or simply the result of misunderstandings, it is very clear that twitter can be a perfect communication tool during these kinds of disasters. We are currently analyzing different tweets sent by ordinary people in Tokyo, by major companies and by NPOs, to better understand the anatomy of this traumatic event in the whole country…Lastly, good news: a 31 year old man from Iwate prefecture was rescued after sending out 17 tweets. Here’s his twitter story:

@ 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
  • Wny 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.

Adam Acar @adamacar   Associate Professor at Kobe City University of Foreign Studies

Yuya Muraki  @zard0206  Undergraduate Student at Kobe City University of Foreign Studies


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