Because of the time difference, many discovered the news of the Tohoku earthquake hours after the 9.0 magnitude tremor was recorded 81 miles off the Japanese East Coast - an earthquake so epic that the resulting tsunami reached across the Pacific and the coasts of America and New Zealand. But also for much of the waking world, news about the unfolding crisis happened instantaneously - because of the amazing reach of social media.
Since the coastal communities of Mississippi and New Orleans were hit by hurricane Katrina in 2005, the role social media has played has established itself as the go-to medium during times of crisis for victims, news and relief aid. It proved to be an essential tool during natural disasters in Iceland and Haiti, and now, with the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
Back in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina rolled through New Orleans the coverage reached the world through traditional media outlets like television, radio and satellite - social media had yet to really get a toe-hold into mainstream verticals. In 2010, when Haiti was rocked by an earthquake that reached 7.0 on the Richter Scale those media channels had shifted to Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites like eBay.
So how does social media help in a crisis like the earthquake in Japan? Let's look at its effect and how it helps these three distinct groups:
In Japan, as traditional modes of communication like telephone lines were lost almost immediately after the earthquake struck - social media channels buoyed. Only an hour after the earthquake, tweets coming out of Tokyo reached 1,200 a minute, according to Mashable. Just a few hours after, and hashtags like #prayforJapan, #earthquake and #tsunami were being tweeted thousands of times per second.
After the Haiti earthquake in 2010, US Google developers created Person Finder for families looking to discover the health and whereabouts of loved ones. Person Finder was then adapted for the victims of the New Zealand earthquake and now for those victims affected in Japan. At last count, Person Finder contains 306,600 names.
In response to the Haiti earthquake, the Guardian ran a story about how social media outlets like Twitter gave victims a voice to be heard - news stations like CNN utilized user-generated information like images and accounts from ground-zero to raise awareness of the crisis.
"The traffic CNN produces with this strategy makes it obvious that today the kpb of a news organisation in case of a disaster is not only to report but also to connect. Giving the victim a voice, helping the victim finding relevant information, as well as informing the public but also providing them a possibility to connect with the victim and help," wrote the Guardian.
With such a large scale disaster, getting charitable donations and relief aid to affected areas is critical - and with the aid of websites like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube raising awareness with various messages, groups and blogs, the opportunities to raise significant funds are increased. Similarly, social media can make donations that much easier: people looking to contribute $10 to the cause can do so by texting REDCROSS to 90999, or for those of us inclined to dabble in Facebook games, gamers can donate through CityVille, FrontierVille, FarmVille or contribute to Zynga's efforts to raise $2 million for Save the Children's Japan Earthquake Tsunami Emergency Fund. There is also a Red Cross Facebook campaign. In short, there really are plenty of available channels that were unavailable only as recently as 2005.
Social media has played more than just a bit-part across recent national disasters - it has been the driving force. From the ash cloud in Iceland to the earthquake in New Zealand and now to the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan, social media has proven to be a game changer.
As the families of victims found on Person Finder will attest, engaging with social media is a wonderful tool.