Before I get to the role that Twitter played in documenting Hurricane Sandy yesterday, I have to ask: do you remember the “disaster girl,” Maureen McGovern?
A singer with an otherwise middling career, McGovern had two cheesy hits in the 1970s that are still played in elevators today. One was “The Morning After.” It was the so-called “love theme” from The Poseiden Adventure, a 1972 movie about a cruise ship that overturned in a tsunami, dooming (nearly) everyone aboard. McGovern re-recorded the song, originally sung by an even more obscure chanteuse, and it went up the charts with a bullet in 1973. This success got her the job of singing “We May Never Love Like This Again,” the love theme for The Towering Inferno, a 1974 thriller about the world’s tallest building burning down. It also got her the industry moniker “the disaster girl,” which is perhaps why she didn’t have much of a career after that, even though “We May Never Love Like This Again” also charted out.
Have you ever wondered why disaster movies required a love theme? Better yet, have you ever wondered why disaster is most compellingly narrated through the human stories that weave through a calamity? Yesterday — as Hurricane Sandy tried to take out the northeast and middle Atlantic States in one big bite — Twitter gave us the little stories that made up the whole.
The essence of a disaster movie’s success is its capacity to make an unthinkable event comprehensible by telling it through the small decisions humans make, decisions that we can understand because we might make them ourselves. For example, in The Towering Inferno, two doomed lovers having an extra-marital affair have to decide whether they will die separately, and hide their love forever, or comfort each other as they share a horrifying fate. (They agree to be incinerated together under a desk.) In Poseiden, a group of dazed cruise passengers, who don’t get it that the ship is upside down, cannot be persuaded not to trudge in the wrong direction where they will surely drown!! (The survivors let them go and save themselves.) And can anyone forget Shelley Winters (a graduate of The New School, by the way), a plump, frightened hausfrau wearing her little chai necklace? She reveals at a key moment that she had been a champion swimmer in her youth, swims across the flooded engine room of the Poseiden to rescue a trapped survivor, and then dies of a heart attack having completed the only heroic feat of her life.
Today, somebody on the Poseiden would have tweeted that moment before continuing on towards the propeller shaft. “RT: After tsunami @ShelleyWinters heroic swim freed trapped comrade will live in r hearts 4evah. Leaving for prop bring blowtorch #Poseiden.”
OK, let’s get serious. Yesterday New York City and numerous other cities and communities suffered a genuine disaster that historians might be able to recreate in great detail because of Twitter. Hitherto unbelievable things — or events like them — occurred in New York, accompanied by real acts of heroism by citizens and city workers. These individual dramas were documented, broadcast throughout the storm, and passed on to a mass audience by volunteer citizens via Twitter.
Sometimes Twitter offered interpretation for things we witnessed but did not understand. For example, when we at Tenured Radical saw a huge flash in the sky, we thought is was a storm phenomenon called “arcing.” Two minutes later our Twitter feed told us that the 14th street power substation had blown up, sending us a video to watch this horrifying spectacle on replay. We waited for news about 19 Con Ed workers who had stayed at the substation to protect the power grid for all lower Manhattan, and were then trapped by rising sea water after the explosion. We read stories about police, firemen, EMTs and other first responders who stayed up all night to be where they were needed and do what they are trained to do. The same news was coming in from Newark, Jersey City, and other cities with far fewer resources and far more poor people in substandard housing than in New York.
And we got all these stories via Twitter.
Twitter is not just social media anymore. It is what Renee Romano and I have called elsewhere a “first draft of history.” The television at Tenured Radical kicked out around 8:30, but this only allowed us to switch our full attention to the professional and volunteer reporters all over the city who tweeted the latest news and pictures while the storm surge swallowed evacuation zone A (and I suspect parts of B.) Cars were floating in the Battery, 14th Street and up the East Side: I have the pictures. Reports out of NYU hospital sounded like an episode of Grey’s Anatomy: their backup generator went out, so rescue workers and staff were bagging and ventilating ICU patients (including babies) by hand and carrying them down many flights of stairs to vehicles that took them — where?
I don’t know. But I’m sure someone else’s Twitter feed relayed the information to relatives who needed it.
The crazy thing about this massive storm was that, although some people refused to leave their homes in places that were clearly in danger, there was almost nowhere to go to get out of harm’s way. People who were forcibly evacuated to shelters may be there a very long time, and as I understand it, there are people who are home but trapped in their buildings in Battery Park City, Hoboken and Newark by flood waters. We are getting news about that on Twitter too, much faster and in greater detail than from local news anchors who seem more concerned with the public safety information they are being asked to disseminate than with telling the story.
The story of a weather event occurs on two levels: the event itself, and the thousands of decisions that people have to make about how they will respond to the danger. Even if you have been through lots of hurricanes, which I have (including two direct hits) it’s very difficult to have a real sense of the intensity of a given storm because they come on so gradually and, when they turn deadly, it is too late to do anything about it. This is why people (mistakenly) refuse to leave. They have brazened out other storms, and what they see around them doesn’t seem like such a big deal. It’s what they don’t see that will kill them. You can’t anticipate the unexpected: witness that tsunami that turned over the Poseiden, or the electrical overload that sent up the Towering Inferno.
You really have to learn to read between the lines when listening to public officials. I think I knew around 6:15 that things were going to be far worse than had been forecast but not until then. This is when the Mayor went on teevee and said: “the time to evacuate is past. Wherever you are, please stay there.” Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, announced firmly that once the waters started rising, anyone who had failed to evacuate was on their own because it would not be possible to save them without sending rescue teams to their death. This caused me to think: the surge is higher than they have thought, and it is going to come on very fast.
It did. A woman who had stayed in Rockaway Beach, a mandatory evacuation zone, called in to a news station, obviously trembling. “The water’s coming up fast,” she said. “I’m scared. I’m really scared. I don’t know what to do.” The co-anchors looked at each other uncertainly, mumbled something encouraging and hung up.
While television and radio did what they could, the best information about the storm’s progress and movement came in 140 characters or less, something that was particularly important as the failure of the power grid took media other than cell phones down. The Twitterati are the ham radio operators of the 21st century, and they were superb last night. To summarize:
- Twitter was an amazing resource throughout the storm, giving us detailed information from places that the media could not possibly cover. The photos were great, but so were the 140 characters that captured small human moments in the midst of catastrophe. @jasoncherkis was all over the place, banging out his own tweets and retweeting valuable info and insights from other microbloggers. My favorite, and most touching moment? It came from Andrew McLaughlin, @McAndrew, “The carousel in Dumbo, underwater, still lit, strangely beautiful.” Go here for the picture.
- My least favorite tweets? Any and all from those f*ckers at Adbusters, who I have lately become irritated with anyway because of the creepy Halloween messages they send hinting that something horrible (not saying what) is gonna happen (soon). There sole purpose nowadays seems to be to drive our anxiety, at fever pitch because of the election and the economy, up into the red zone. Did Adbusters get it that being gleeful about the possibility that the Stock Exchange would be flooded, and sending out a fake tweet claiming that it was, was super tasteless because so many people would worry about friends and family in the path of the same storm surge? I guess not. When you live in Seattle and Portland the geography of Lower Manhattan may be a little hazy. Unfollow, you a$$hats.
- In contrast, the perhaps unnecessary proof that you can be a good anarchist and a good citizen would be @OccupySteve, an Occupy Wall Street activist who seemed to be everywhere, getting quite accurate information out way ahead of the MSM. I also recommend @OccuWeather (currently reporting 16 deaths, while the Mayor’s office is reporting 10.) Other news clips from @OccuWeather: 1000 people who are trapped in attics and on roofs; and the Chelsea Piers Athletic Complex on the Hudson River is a total loss. Apparently fires are also raging out of control in the Bronx.
Are you in New York? Want to help? If you find a service provider, tweet it, putting RT at the beginning (if you are a novice) that signals to people that they should re-tweet it. RT other people’s tweets.
If you want to do real-time work for real-time people, City Council Member Brad Lander (Democrat, District 39 – Brooklyn) reports that the evacuation shelters need help. They are overburdened and people will be staying longer than anticipated: many of the residents need clothes, and the shelter workers need to rest. You can sign up to volunteer at a shelter by finding the nearest one and reaching out. My understanding is that they are signing people up for eight hour shifts, but do not go unless you have arranged it in advance.
Bonus video: “The Morning After” mashed up with the Shelley Winters rescue scene.