Social Media & The Strange Combination of Empowerment and Helplessness During a Tragedy

As I was riding back from Austin, Texas yesterday afternoon, looking out the windows at the remains of the Bastrop fire from two years ago, I got the first news of the tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma. It brought back the thoughts of me hunkering down in the basement of the Oklahoma City University School of Law fourteen years ago. My fingers danced across my phone going back and forth between social media sites, CNN, and KFOR television’s web broadcast looking for more information on what was going on. The sickening combination of déjà vu and helplessness started drifting over me in waves.

It is strange how we are so connected these days to others around the world. Almost no place seems to be foreign to us any longer. We could track our friends through their posts on Facebook, and fear for those that hadn’t yet updated their status to let us know they were okay. We could hear from old friends who had long since moved away from Oklahoma, relive those past tornado experiences, and send prayers, best wishes, and contributions to their friends that remained and were currently affected by the latest storms. I reached out to my cousin in Boston to determine if his sister in Moore, Oklahoma had contacted him yet to let him know she was okay. The connections were both comforting, and unsettling. I felt like I could know exactly what was going on at any moment, and frustrated by the reality that I really didn’t have that power.

After 20 minutes, I received a message back from my cousin saying that his sister was fine and that the tornado went south of her existing home, and just north of the home she and her husband were building. They were thankful to have been spared, once again from the third F4 or F5 tornado (May 3, 1999; May 8, 2003, and May 20, 2013) to strike the Oklahoma City suburb in fourteen years.

I turned back to Facebook to track other friends (mostly librarians) in the area.
My good friend, and fellow AALL Board Member, Katie Brown, was having nearly the same experiences I had back in 1999. She posted on Facebook that she was:
In the basement of the law library stay safe people!
She was actually with some of the same people I sat with in that very basement. I could picture sitting along the walls of that lower level looking back and forth between the doors of the bathrooms, the other library staffers and a few law students that were there for their final exams, and the doors that went in both directions toward the serials collection and the National Reporter sets. I’m sure the building has changed with the renovations over the past dozen years, but I still see the old layout as clearly as if it had happened yesterday. In 1999, my pregnant wife and two-year old daughter were on the opposite side of the damage. In 2013, Katie's husband and kids (well, cats) were also on the other side of the destruction. It was bizarre watching the updates and understanding what would happen next as she made her way back across a broken terrain to reunite with her family, just as I had done so many years ago.

As a librarian in Oklahoma, there is kind of a trend of living in Norman, and working in Oklahoma City. The idea is to enjoy the college-type atmosphere and more liberal settings of Norman, and actually make a living in your profession in the more populous OKC region (that is, if you absolutely can’t find a job in Norman that pays a decent wage.) The drive each day takes you up I-35 via Flood Ave or  24th Ave and you pass through Moore each morning and afternoon. I’ve been gone from the area for more than 10 years now, but can still remember taking the 25 minute drive every day from my North Norman residence to the Administrative Office of the Courts building just blocks away from the State Capitol building. Moore wasn’t a place we went to… it was a place we drove through.

As I watched update after update come in from friends, I started remembering how difficult it was to drive back home to Norman that night back in 1999. That 25 minute trip became a five-hour journey. My Oklahoma librarian friends were having to make that same journey last night.

One friend posted:
I am going to take Sara Road down to Highway 9, then back up into Norman. If anyone knows why this won't work, let me know.
Katie posted:
Just got the all clear to leave the basement. But there is a tornado between my work and my house so I am staying in okc for awhile.
Then the wait began to see the next post, knowing it would be hours from now, to confirm that they made it home safely. Four hours later, both had confirmed they made it. My initial reaction was relief… then I had a twinge of jealousy that they beat my travel time by an hour. I chalked that up to having a cell phone, social media and GPS to guide them around the roads they had most likely never traveled before.

Like I said earlier, it is strange at how connected we are these days. You feel empowered, yet helpless at the same time. I'm not sure if it is a good thing or bad thing, it's just a thing we all have to get used to. Now time to go back to Facebook and check in to make sure everyone else is okay.

Bookmark and Share


David Glenn said...

That was such a tragic onslaught.
I too feel the pain of their loss. Much as I want to keep my eyes glued in the television to keep myself updated on the news about the current situation of OK, I just can't because I have to do a lot of errands in running my Law Firm. Yes, Facebook is the only way for me to make sure that my friends in OK are fine. Just by seeing them posting in Facebook is already a relief for me.


© 2014, All Rights Reserved.