Dealing with a disaster in the age of the Internet

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Published On : Tue, Apr 22nd, 2014

Photo essay: Social media emerges from the ashes of the devastating Valparaíso blaze as a highly efficient tool in coordinating community relief efforts.

A couple begin rebuilding their house after the devastating Valparaíso fire.

A couple begin rebuilding their house after the devastating Valparaíso fire.

Soon after the fire began and in the shadow of growing dark clouds of smoke that quickly filled the Valparaíso sky as the worst blaze in the city’s history took hold, Enrique Rivera and Pedro Donoso were driving not down the hill, but hurriedly towards it in an effort to bring water and food to those affected. The scale of destruction brought by the marauding flames was soon apparent and they realized that only scorched earth would be left in the fire’s wake.

The scorched forests surrounding Cerro la Cruz.

The scorched forests surrounding Cerro la Cruz.

“This is what it looked like before, this was La Cañas,” Rivera told The Santiago Times, pointing at a satellite image of the hillside neighborhood which was the first of many to be engulfed by a huge fire that swept the city earlier this month, raging for five days, killing 15 and leaving more than 12,000 people homeless.

“Now none of this exists,” he added grimly.

Volunteer Pedro Donoso points to satellite images of the areas worst affected in the huge fire.

Volunteer Pedro Donoso points to satellite images of the areas worst affected in the huge fire.

The pair, previously unfamiliar with the area, used Google Earth to get their bearings but were immediately confronted with the stark contrast of the charred wreckage and onscreen images of what had been the neighborhood.

“It was a horrible moment,” Donoso said.

Charred cutlery lies scattered in the wreckage of houses consumed by the blaze.

Charred cutlery lies scattered in the wreckage of houses consumed by the blaze.

But the pair were quick to react to the huge material loss that confronted those whose homes were swallowed up by the rampaging blaze, many in the poorer neighborhoods perched on the limits of the hilly city.

“Children, in particular, lost all their most basic possessions. An earthquake can hit and cause serious damage, but here there is absolutely nothing left [after a fire],” Enrique explained.

They were still in the car when they decided to create the Facebook page “Un Niño, Una Mochila (One Child, One Backpack).” In a matter of minutes they co-opted a friend who got the page up and running.

“The goal was to collect 3,000 schoolbags, and we collected more than 7,000,” said Enrique.

Children help out in efforts to classify donations for those worst hit by the disaster.

Children help out in efforts to classify donations for those worst hit by the disaster.

Once the dust had settled and the fire was finally contained, other necessities emerged. The need for communal cooking areas quickly spawned a spin-off social media donation drive: “Una Cuadra, Una Cocina (One Block, One Kitchen).”

A Cerro la Cruz resident surveys his ruined house in the aftermath of the fire.

A Cerro la Cruz resident surveys his ruined house in the aftermath of the fire.

Daniela Núñez, a student at the Universidad de Valparaíso, is helping coordinate collection efforts, relaying the goods needed to those organizing donations in Santiago by group social media pages.

She said that help is still needed, especially to give some rest to the volunteers who have been helping from the start of the crisis and often put in long days in tough conditions — air quality remains dangerous and facemasks are strongly advised. The first week, most of the volunteers were involved in collecting and removing wreckage, especially scorched building materials. The high tetanus risk is being countered with a vaccination drive to protect those involved in relief efforts against contracting the disease.

Thousands of volunteers are assisting in reconstruction efforts.

Thousands of volunteers are assisting in reconstruction efforts.

Morgana is the communications director at the Trafon culture center, a community space close to the worst-hit neighborhoods which has quickly converted into a shelter for those made homeless by the disaster and a focal point of community-led spontaneous relief efforts.

“When the fire started nobody doubted our support,” she explained. “We opened the doors and people came straight inside, fleeing the fire. And that’s how the shelter was born.”

A volunteer working in the Cerro la Cruz area of Valparaíso.

A volunteer working in the Cerro la Cruz area of Valparaíso.

Employees at Trafon usually charged with promoting events put their social media skills to work to publicize the center’s relief efforts.

“We gained confidence quickly by publicizing ourselves as ‘autogestionado [self-managed],’ which immediately marked us apart from the standard response measures which until now has only disappointed,” Morgana explained.

A Chain of volunteers clear wreckage in Cerro la Cruz.

A Chain of volunteers clear wreckage in Cerro la Cruz.

A week before the fire, 10 people worked at Trafon. Now more than 200 — almost all young people — are helping out with the post-crisis management. But despite the outpouring of support, organizers say they are still in dire need of specialized personnel.

“Now we need medical professionals. Not just for standard health care but also for psychological support,” Morgana said. “Even within the volunteers we have to be careful. Sometimes, people arrive at the site [of the damage] and suddenly they fall apart and collapse. We’re in a disaster zone so it has been tough in many respects.”

More than 12,000 people were left homeless by five successive days of fire in April.

More than 12,000 people were left homeless by five successive days of fire in April.

The various relief organizations are still updating online lists of the materials most needed for collection efforts. At the moment, construction materials are a priority. Donors can buy the tools needed online and send them on to the various collection points such as Trafon.

With an eye on the future, Riveras said reconstruction efforts could provide a valuable opportunity to address the conditions that blighted many of the poor areas affected and may have even caused the fire such as the abundant high-tension electrical cables believed to be responsible for initially sparking the huge blaze.

Volunteers in Las Cañas.

Volunteers in Las Cañas.

“Why not run all [power cables] underground now?” asks Rivera. “We know this will happen again otherwise and spark another fire.”

Photos & article by Davide Mancini (davide.mancini2013@gmail.com)
Copyright 2014 – The Santiago Times

About the Author

Davide Mancini
Davide Mancini
Davide is an Italian photo and video journalist. He holds a masters in Journalism, Media and Globalization (MA) with a specialization in war and conflict journalism from Swansea University. Davide has contributed to publications including La Republica and Cafe Babel. Contact him at davide.mancini2013@gmail.com