It’s hard to look away from pictures and videos being broadcast from Alabama and the Deep South to computer screens around the world.
A friend gave a name to the countless images of devastation captured in my home state: disaster porn. And as I spent much of Thursday as a voyeur surveying damage to places that are still whole in my memory, I felt dirty as I got an Internet-fueled glimpse into so many lives shattered by a horrible natural disaster. I felt sick as I watched videos of monster tornados grinding across commercial and residential landscapes, shredding every thing in their path.
Homes demolished. Towns leveled. Lives destroyed.
There are splintered cities, ravaged neighborhoods and countless cars turned upside down.
Blood. Tears. Mountains of debris.
Yet, no matter how bad I felt, with a lump in my throat and a weight on my heart, I just couldn't look away, no matter how much I wanted. I'd say disaster porn is about right, and thanks to the power of the Internet, all the heartache and woe is right there on display for the all to see. Victims' most intimate moments are broadcast to a worldwide audience.
It's enough to make me curse technology, cast away my computer and and resolve to a life spent recapturing a time when we could happily remain ignorant to devastation reaped hundreds of miles away.
At the same time, that's a fool's errand, and it's not one worthy of pursuit.
After all, that same technology allowed me to receive live social media updates from family and friends in the path of storms as they ripped across Alabama. The Internet gave me a real-time porthole to non-stop weather broadcasts that revealed a radar track of tornado-spawning storms creeping past Alabama neighborhoods of loved ones. Most importantly, as that same technology delivered friends' Facebook messages and news stations' weather reports, it also kept people safe.
Huddled in their basement, friends tuned in to Internet radio broadcasts updating them on the storm's approach. My mom watched weather radar with an application on her phone, ever mindful of when she should make her way with my father to a concrete, under-ground cellar. Other people received instant warnings to take shelter thanks to weather alerts delivered to their telephone. When a deadly storm is approaching, a couple minutes of advanced warning make a huge difference between finding shelter in a safe place and being caught off-guard in the path of danger. Today's technology delivered that warning.
Now in the aftermath, there are even social media spaces dedicated to reuniting storm-affected people with their possessions. The Facebook page "Pictures and documents found after the April 27, 2011 tornado" is a truly remarkable concept that connects people with photos and important documents the storms swept out of demolished homes. And in Wednesday's storm, tidbits of lives were snatched up from homes at one end of the state and dropped again, in some cases, dozens of miles away.
Further, technology, and in particular social media, allows victims to share their needs and it lets people hoping to help know the best ways to do just that. Another Facebook page "Pray for the Victims of April 27, 2011" has become a clearing house for supply drives and charity response. It is just one of the many methods being used to seek and deliver help to a part of our nation recovering from one of history's worst natural disasters. You can even use your cell phone to make donations to the disaster relief efforts organized by the American Red Cross and Salvation Army.
Technology-driven mediums are essential to the safety of people in Alabama and to their recovery after the storm. They are essential to us right here in Catawba County, too. First and foremost, the best line of warning is a weather radio in your home. Still, deadly storms and emergencies don't always approach while we are at home, in bed, and with a weather radio near our head. Emergencies dawn while we are at work, in our cars or outdoors. The weather radio may not be nearby in those places, but in this day and age, a computer or a cell phone usually is. It is reassuring to know that through modern-day technology, we can always be aware of emergency threats that loom, and as a result we can position ourselves to protect our own safety and that of our family.
Even if the technology also quenches our twisted hunger for disaster porn.
Lee Yount Jr., a programmer analyst with Catawba County Government, has created a comprehensive Internet webpage full of severe weather resources, including those driven by Internet and smartphone technology, and those from the "stone age" time of weather radios and TV. Visit Lee's personal site, leeyount.com and look for "Severe Weather Resources" to get more information on ideas that can help you protect yourself and your family during a time of emergency.
A lot of people in the Deep South are in dire need right now. The Catawba County community often responds to other neighbors struggling during times of crisis, and I invite you to help again. An easy way to do that is to make a donation to The Salvation Army, which provides food, drink and spiritual support to victims of disaster and other emergency responders working to help them. Salvation Army currently has "boots on the ground" at areas hardest hit by this week's tornadoes. Please visit www.salvationarmyusa.org , text "GIVE" to 80888 or call 1-800-SAL-ARMY to make a donation to "April 2011 Tornado Outbreak." Of every dollar donated to Salvation Army, 82 cents goes directly toward "doing the most good."
Michael Willard is the publisher of The Observer News Enterprise.