I had an amazing set of experiences recently when I found myself in the center of the tsunami that hit Pago Pago Harbor in American Samoa on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2009. As you may know, I live and work from my sailboat Learnativity and am busy wandering and pondering the world from this vantage point—one nautical mile at a time.
So it was that I sailed into Pago Pago harbor on Friday, September 25th and was peacefully tied up to this beautiful island when Mother Nature decided to remind us just who was in charge by setting off a series of undersea earthquakes starting early Tuesday morning.
If you are interested in the details you can read more on my Learnativity blog, which I maintain on my travels. Given the gravity and depth of this recent experience I wrote up a set of three stories about my “Tsunami Tango”: Part I, Part II and Part III.
The first tsunami effect was the draining of most of the water from Pago Pago harbor. As a result, within seconds I found myself hanging on for dear life to the rigging up on the deck of Learnativity as she went from floating peacefully to lying hard over on her side on the bottom of the harbor.
Every action causes an equal and opposite reaction, right? Sure enough, the now empty harbor began to refill immediately with those millions of gallons of water flooding back in and lifting Learnativity and I up, up, up until we were about 15 feet higher than high tide levels. Knowing what was coming next, I cut my dock lines, fired up the engine, and rammed the throttle full forward, hoping I had enough horsepower to pull away from the dock before we were sucked back and under it.
Given that I’m here to write this, we obviously succeeded, and I was able to motor out into the middle of the harbor while the pattern of flooding and emptying continued for several more cycles.
I learned a lot both during this initial experience and in the ensuing days as we all pitched in and recovered from the damage and toll of the aftermath. At the end of Tsunami Tango, Part III, I included a short list of lessons learned from my experience. One of the things that really struck me was how powerful today's communications technology is, as well as some of the unexpected benefits, connections, and network effect that they produce.
And so begins the point of this posting—my use of the communications technology aboard Learnativity.
Once I was able to devote my attention to something other than escape and survival, I realized that data from all the seismic and tsunami instruments would soon be circulating the news networks and that the friends and family of people who were here would be worried and wanting to know if they were all right, as well as more details of what was going on.
American Samoa is an interesting anomaly. It is officially a part of the United States and the only U.S. soil south of the equator, but it is also very small. I didn’t think there would be much news reporting going out from the island, and probably whatever they did have was damaged or washed away in the past few minutes by the tsunami.
Fortunately I carry a satellite phone with me and this provides me with true anytime/anywhere communications in the form of voice calls and SMS text messages, plus it can act as a data modem for email. However, my hands were rather busy keeping the boat afloat and out of the way of all the other unmanned boats and debris trying their best to hit and sink Learnativity, so keying in a text message on a satphone, a long, slow process, was out. Forget email too with the required laptop and typing.
But I could talk without my hands (difficult for me at times, but possible) and I did have my key contacts stored in the speed dial memory of the phone, so I punched that key. It seemed like an eternity before for all the various connections were made—the signal traveling out of my phone, up to the nearest satellite, across the sat network in the sky (Iridium), down to land, across a lot of miles, out to a cellular network, and finally into my trusted friend John’s cell phone—and I was fortunate enough that even with the time difference between us, John was awake and answered my call on his cell phone. John, who was in Florida, had not yet heard any news reports about the tsunami and I was able to give him a synopsis of both my situation and that of the island and the harbor.
John is my primary contact while I’m out at sea. He has direct access to all my various online accounts and passwords, so we agreed that he would immediately do two things: log in as me on Twitter and start forwarding the text messages I would send out as Tweets, and he would also send a short summary email to the list of friends and family to whom I normally send my twice daily email updates.
Relieved that my friends and family would know that I was alive and well, and that others would soon have some information from a firsthand observer about what was happening here in Pago Pago, I was able to start sending short SMS text messages whenever I could divert my attention from the immediate needs of others around me. John then rebroadcast all of these via my Twitter account and email list.
What I hadn’t quite expected was how quickly the network effect would kick in. The following example is an email that John sent out in response to queries he started getting within minutes after he posted my first texts. Note the timestamp and in John’s time zone the first tsunami wave struck Pago Pago at about 4:25 p.m. (BTW, you can also use these links to see the Tweets yourself):
On Tue, Sep 29, 2009 at 4:34 PM, <John> wrote:
I am relaying all of my messages with Wayne onto Twitter ... www.twitter.com/wwwayne ... this will show you all traffic, as I get a msg from him, I update.
Sorry... best way to get all Twitter traffic on Wayne, including link to his interview on CBS news is http://twitter.com/#search?q=wwwayne ... he's sending update on this.
When I speak with him, I will send and email to the group.
You can keep visiting the site and it will have the latest messages he sends, or that any writes in reference to him.
I also spoke with John several times over the next few hours to provide him with more details and keep him fully apprised of the situation.
What started to happen next was that news networks, reporters, bloggers, and others started to find my feeds as they were searching for information and were contacting John and me. Within less than an hour after this all started, I was receiving calls, texts, and emails and was able to help these sources get the word out to the rest of the world. Amazing!
Of course the problem with traditional news media such as TV, radio and print is that they are on a schedule and need put all this input together, edit it, and then wait for the next available time slot. In the much more immediate interim though, these new means of communication and “reporting” are happening in real time.
Brent Schlenker was similarly struck by this same situation and effects and wrote a very good posting in his Corporate eLearning Strategies and Development blog entitled “Tsunami confirms strength and power of digital connections”. Brent’s account will give you a vivid sense of what it was like for him to be one of the many who were receiving these feeds and following the action.
It was several hours before I was able to get Learnativity back to what remained of the shore and the dock, where I would try my best to search for those missing and help others out and begin the long slow process of recovery, cleanup, and restoration. Shore side was a disaster—resembling a war zone more than a tropical town, with whole buildings washed away, entire car dealership lots emptied, gas stations wiped out and spewing gas everywhere, boats up in trees, cars lodged in building windows, fish flopping on the main road, and debris everywhere.
Not knowing how badly the other parts of the island were hit, I finally had a moment to check for working Wi-Fi connections, and to my delight and amazement I found one and was able to get on the Internet to receive and send emails from some of my other accounts. Here is one of the first emails I sent out:
On Sep 29, 2009, at 3:51 PM, "Wayne Hodgins" <email@example.com> wrote:
Just a quick update from me to let you know that LTY, Ruby and I survived the volcano/earthquake/tsunami and are now docked again near where we started this morning.
Unbelievable adventure and learning experience! I just got this web connection so wanted to get this out to anyone who was missed in the ones that John SO kindly sent out to you when I was able to reach him via sat phone. We are getting warnings of another potential Tsunami in about 90 minutes so I'm not straying too far from the boat, but trying to help out with others and the search for one of our fellow sailors who was washed off the dock and is still missing. Chaos and a mess ashore as you can imagine but most of us are all here and accounted for.
Ruby is back onboard now. When the harbor first emptied and LTY was laying on the bottom hard over on her side, she was sliding off the deck so I jumped, grabbed her by her always on harness just as she went over the side and threw her ashore to the family of the boat beside me who decided to stay ashore for the ordeal. They are an Australian couple with a 12 year old boy and a Canadian man crewing with them. At one point when the water was coming back in, they were all clinging to the light pole on the dock as the water came up more than 10' over the top of the dock which is usually about 10' above water level. Quite the sight and all I could do was watch as I had LTY revved to the max trying desperately to get away from the suction of the eddies all around me and get clear of the concrete dock and all the other ships, containers and other debris roaring toward me. So all I could do was watch as they clung for dear life to the light pole, Ruby strung around the Gary's neck as he held onto his wife Lisa and son Jake. They ended up losing their boat as it floated way, crashed into several others and vice versa and ended up aground at the far West end of the harbor. I'm moving them onboard LTY now. We'll inspect their boat more when it is safe and see if it is a total loss or not.
All I have time for now. Just wanted to let you know LTY, Ruby and I are fine, prepping for what might be next and trying to help those less fortunate.
In the hours and days that followed, I was interviewed by countless news sources from around the world who used the information on their radio, television, and print media. I was pleased that I was able to help provide them with some firsthand information. However, I thought that the real champions of the day were the community of individuals who created a much more immediate, intimate, and informal network and provided the most significant and timely benefits. I learned firsthand just how powerful the combined forces of people and technology can be.
When the world we live in is very much one of exponential change, it is easy to take things for granted, assume everyone has the same access to technology, and to miss the growing examples of the network effect which as my recent example shows, the whole is truly greater than the sum of the parts. I hope we can all remain suitably amazed, humbled, and impressed by both the power of natural forces and those we create. Combined, they truly are AWEmazing.
PS. I remained in Pago Pago for another week helping those less fortunate than I to recover and repair their boats, business, and hearts. The toll was very high, with over forty people losing their lives including children and a fellow cruiser. There was a great loss of boats, homes, and dreams. Once the majority of the work was done, I needed to start heading south to New Zealand, so I could be out of the hurricane/cyclone belt. So I sailed down to Nuku’alofa, the capital of Tonga, which is located at the southern end of this chain of islands. Currently I’m under sail and about 160 nautical miles SW of Nuku’alofa Tonga (cut and paste this lat/long into Google Earth to see for yourself 22 23.238S 177 15.153W) and able to post this article via my same satphone using it this time as a data modem. Still amazing to me.