A friend gave mouth-to-mouth to a fallen man, through blood and bone and crushed teeth. The man died. Another, racing down the hill in his car to get to his young son at school, being blocked by rockfall, getting on a bike, arriving marginally further, ditching the bike, running, rounding the corner, seeing the collapsed cliff that had buried the back half of the school. The son is alive.
A third, trapped on the first floor of a building with 25 students, being rescued by a nameless window cleaner who smashed the window and accompanied every person down his ladder, guiding their every step until everyone came out safe.
Here is a taste of what you have to deal with in the aftermath of an earthquake:
You have no power. This means your TV doesn't work, and neither does your Internet or your cordless phone. You can't recharge your cell phone, and you've used up all the batteries frantically trying to get through to your loved ones on the overloaded network. This, of course, is assuming you have your phone and didn't leave it behind, along with your wallet and your laptop, in the frenzied scramble to get out alive while the walls of your building collapsed around you. You have no water to drink, and none to flush the toilet, so you dig holes in the backyard. You may have lost your car, your office, your job, your home, your friend, your spouse. You have to surmount innumerable additional hurdles, deal with insurance companies and government agencies, itemize your destruction and fill out your paperwork: administrative and logistical distractions that require effort and attention just when you are at your lowest in terms of emotional and psychological resources.
Here is some of what you need in the event of a natural disaster:
You need to know your loved ones are alive and OK. You need to know where to get the water, which roads are open, whether any supermarkets are functioning, whether there is additional danger, where the nearest porta-potty is located, where you can get gas for the car. You need to know whether others' experience is better or worse than yours, who needs what kind of help, who is around to help you, and who is just around so you don't feel so desperately alone, so mortally terrified, and so full of grief and uncertainty.
And here is what user-generated content does for you:
It helps you find your loved ones. It tells you where the water is and which supermarkets are functioning. It connects you with those around you, whether they need help, can help you, or neither. If you happen to be overseas when disaster strikes at home, it helps you understand what is happening on the ground, not from a media perspective, but from the perspective of your neighbors, the people who are living and breathing this event, who will be picking up the pieces for years after the CNN and BBC cameras have left, who will have to rely on each other when the world's attention and sympathies inevitably refocus on the next disaster elsewhere.
In a disaster, UGC is not here for your entertainment. It is not competing with network news for ad dollars. It does not care whether you think it should be pitted against the professionals for a journalism award. It is a way for people experiencing the most significant event of their lives to bear witness, to cry out their pain and their suffering and their need, to connect with people close by who are sharing the experience and with people far away who, but for their voices, might mistake these events for a blockbuster movie filmed on a sound stage. No human can fail to be moved by the horrific tragedy of Japan, made so real by the user-generated content coming from that ravaged coastline -- its very lack of professionalism making it so abundantly clear that there is no difference at all between us and them. In these turbulent times, we cannot afford to distance ourselves from the humanity at the other end of the camera, and from the reality that there but for the grace go we.
I'm grateful for your user-generated content, on Twitter or in the comments. Stay safe out there.