How natural disasters are like Twitter

Got FEMA?: A photo I took of a post-Katrina T-Shirt, part of the dark-humor coping New Orleans residents went through (and continue to go through) in the aftermath of the flood.

How we learn about, or even how we experience, major disasters spread over large regions, can be like Twitter: Snippets of truth, opinions, rumors, lies, inspiration, whining, complaining, heroism, sacrifice, brilliance, ignorance — a collection of “small pieces, loosely joined.”

Here’s an example from Hurricane Sandy, the current disaster we’re experiencing in our own, unique ways. This morning on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday, host Scott Simon was interviewing reporter Jim Zarolli who was describing Staten Island in a way that made it sound like it was forgotten by the world — like the Ninth Ward after Katrina. Simon had to cut the interview short to go to a story on what a great job FEMA is doing to respond to the needs to people throughout the region — including Staten Island.

In other words, two reports by NPR reporters provided two realities of the same event — yet I as a listener am more confused than I was before hearing them. Should I be angry that FEMA is not responding to the needs of my fellow citizens. Or should I be proud of FEMA’s ability to learn from past mistakes so that it is doing a better job now?

In situations like this, if we had the time to devote to monitoring the far-off, or down-the-street, disaster, the best anyone could do is listen to the fragments of news rushing by us in our personal versions of Rivers of News. (Note: The term was coined by Dave Winer for a collection of concepts, software, tools and passions he has pioneered and evangelized and continues to develop better ways to follow, create, curate and publish).

But we don’t have such time, so we depend on others to tell us what’s happening.

And that’s a very frustrating thing. Because, what others tell us about massive disasters (and wars, the economy, contagious diseases, et al) depends (as witnessed on NPR this morning) on what the person sharing is seeing and hearing (the truth from their vantage point) and what we are prepared to hear — what signals we have tuned into — Twitter feeds we follow, news sources we’ve subscribed to and a large set of factors that blend together into what can be called our personal cognitions.

In my cognition of the Sandy story, my foremost concern has been for a daughter who had to evacuate her apartment a week ago and who may not be able to move back in for another week, or more. But she is safe and dry and has a family and employer and friends and personal initiative and resources, and city, state and federal agencies who have helped her to experience this disaster as a mere inconvenience.

Yet within blocks or where she lives, and short distance across the Hudson River, no matter what anyone can do, families have lost love ones and others have lost homes and everything they owned. Sandy will impact their lives forever.

Yet despite where we are, or how we experience such disasters, we are somehow loosely joined by it.

Of course, this is just my opinion and observation.

Please join it loosely with your’s, and everyone else’s.

Maybe if we throw in enough pieces of facts and opinions and observations, one day in a century or two, someone can mix it all together and cook up some form of Truth Gumbo.