Reporting Typhoon Haiyan: Dishing Up News a New Way

Posted by on Nov 14, 2013 in Crisis & Risk Communication, Disaster Response, Social Media, Typhoon | 5 comments

Reporting Typhoon Haiyan: Dishing Up News a New Way

 After a major disaster, global news media outlets provide an important public service: they tell stories, report facts and share insightful perspectives. But we must remember, the news media is big business, and by it’s very nature, it sells by sensationalizing. Additionally, it often fails to ask core, critical questions that would help us, Joe Public, better understand and evaluate what is and isn’t working. The media’s response to Typhoon Haiyan (also known as Typhoon Yolanda) that devastated the #Philippines this week is no exception.

Today my colleague John Crowley, a research affiliate at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and consultant to many international organizations, provided an excellent critical analysis of the problem with news reporting in his opinion piece for Time. Entitled “Stop Catastrophizing Relief Efforts in the Philippines,” John described how media reports are distorting public perceptions on key issues that in turn are negatively impacting the speed of international donor assistance. One such influence he cites is that of exaggerated reports on security and looting which are creating donor fear and resulting in delayed shipments of goods. We have enough drama already. While crime and mayhem might make headline news, it simply makes things worse for those whose lives are hanging by a thread. John rightfully points out that the news media needs to refocus on the foundational, critical issues of the country (e.g., an operating cellular network) and examine this super event in the context of the country’s normally strong response capabilities. I couldn’t agree more. 

Remember the mantra “all disasters are local?” I know of few countries in the world that routinely get pummeled by natural disasters like the Philippines. This is a country whose public, private and non-governmental sectors and civil society diligently work together with international humanitarian organizations to strengthen resilience planning and improve emergency management systems. Those individuals whom I’ve met and worked with over the years have been dedicated emergency managers, open to progress, engaged, and committed to disaster risk reduction and response. They deserve to a mention or two.

Challenge: rethinking ways to enhance information flows Photo/AP

Challenge: rethinking ways to enhance information flows Photo/AP

Are things problematic with the Haiyan response effort? Yes, of course. Today, online WorldCrunch cited Geneva-based daily Le Temps figures of 11.3 million people affected, including 670,000 displaced. With this extent of societal disruption how could the response not be overwhelmingly challenging? Hurricane Katrina practically brought the US to it’s knees not so long ago. If you’ve worked in southeast Asia, you know that of all the regions in the world ripe for innovative problem-solving and requiring international support, this is it.

So where does the news services fit in?  I suggest by taking on a stronger leadership role by examining big picture needs, advocating local needs, and encouraging global, enterprise level (read corporate) philanthropic response. I responded to the Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami as part of a corporate humanitarian response team. Some long-term innovation came out of the team’s effort. I’m heartened that innovation is now also happening with the Philippines response. I wish the world media would turn more of it’s focus towards those efforts. I know I could use a hero stories or two.

So if traditional news outlets aren’t cutting it, providing us with a holistic perspective, where else can we look?

Crowdsourced outreach on Twitter.

Crowdsourced outreach on Twitter.

Personally, I’m finding other sources: factual, community-level information is absolutely gushing in from social media reporting. Twitter and Facebook and other online platforms are being powerfully used by on-the-ground relief organizations, businesses, global humanitarian teams, government agencies and citizens. They’re providing different perspectives from general news sources. (In all fairness, traditional media outlets have joined the social party as well – business is business, after all. Yet, for the most part, the majority are utilizing social media primarily as mainstream information distribution channels.) The social posts of other organizations and nontraditional providers reflect stories of global and grass roots response efforts, progress, problems, concerns and personal stories. They spotlight material and financial needs. Some ask for funding support or donations of time and labor, but isn’t this what we the readers want–to be offered a way to take action?

Social media platforms such as Twitter lend themselves to be used to distribute news as well as gather data to support a response. Nonprofit humanitarian organizations such as Humanity Road offer opportunities for volunteers (#digihums) to help digitally monitor the ongoing crisis, map data, and supply a wide range of “crowdsourced” information to officials and the world. MicroMappers, a joint collaboration between QCRI, digital volunteers and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), is another example of  information gathering and distribution. The one-way information street of the past is now a busy intersection of contributors, receivers and bystanders. It blends public and private. Techies and execs. In suits. At home with bunny slippers. Now we can all play an active part in response. In creating and receiving news.

Tweetclicker: handheld devices are used to report data in volunteer crowdsourcing. Photo by MicroMappers

Tweetclicker: handheld devices are used to report data in volunteer crowdsourcing. Photo by MicroMappers

The traditional media outlets continue to be essential – we definitely need as many partner and tools in our communications toolkit as possible! Yet, these difference between traditional and social content/format are noteworthy. Social posts dish up real time (or near real time) breaking news, often with a vibrant, personalized hook. They give us a way to respond, and importantly, a way to easily share  the info–even sitting in the comfort of a living room, continents away. Now that’s engagement. Community building. Informational power. It makes me believe that the ability to provide timely, micro-reporting via social feeds is quickly evolving to offer the public an improved form of situational awareness. This makes the responsive version of  a “nightly news” oh so much more interesting.

Yes, these nimble new information resources are increasing our ability to get a real inside look, to understand what is going on – even in a remote, typhoon-ravaged archipelago in the western Pacific Ocean. Yet, we need to stay diligent. We need news content that is true, and truly matters. That supports those who are now facing the bitter reality of losing family members, homes and livelihood.

Can we stay tuned in? Influence response operations and decision-making? I think so. Now if we could only get our friends in the Philippines some cell service.

Feature photo: An evacuee during a military airlift. Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

The Pink Paddle: A Gift of Hope

Posted by on May 10, 2013 in Cancer, Community Wellness, Resilience | 13 comments

The Pink Paddle: A Gift of Hope

At first I didn’t want it.The pink-colored canoe paddle seemed so out of character for me. Then it hit me: my new gift represented hope.

The shiny paddle, with its blade swirling in shades of pink and white, was a heartfelt thank you from Eric, a close friend who lives miles from the sea, in landlocked Colorado. Eric is fighting the good fight against a greedy, insatiable enemy—cancer. The deadly battle lines have been drawn. I’m on his team. The pink blade is my fighting weapon that links me to Eric and links him to the healing waters of the warm Pacific Ocean that he loves. Together, we take on each wave, and each day, one at a time.

Pink Hawaiian outrigger paddle--a thank you gift for community cancer support.

Pink Hawaiian outrigger paddle–a thank you gift for community cancer support.

I often write about building disaster resilient communities. This time I’m writing about communities building resilient people. The Mana’olana Pink Paddlers, affectionately known as “the pinks,” is a Maui, Hawaii-based paddling club made up of cancer survivors and supporters. I’m a supporter. The spirited organization was started in 2006 by members of the Maui Canoe Club and the Abreast in a Boat program in Canada. Mana’o (mah-NAH-oh) means “thought.” Lana (lah-nah) means “belief.” Together the two Hawaiian words mean “hope.” The club’s tag line says it all: Challenging Cancer. Creating Community. Promoting Hope. People from around the world journey to a small beach in Kihei to exercise and build confidence and friendship. The community help some celebrate being cancer free, it supports others facing chemotherapy, others to heal from operations. Loved ones come to say goodbye in a sacred Ashes-to-Sea ceremony.

Mana'Olana Pink Paddlers, Paddle for Life: Voyage to Lanai'i

Mana’Olana Pink Paddlers, Paddle for Life: Voyage to Lanai’i

Last year I joined my fellow Pinks and hundreds of outrigger paddlers from as far away as Canada and Japan for a voyage from Maui to (and for some around) the nearby island of Lanai’i in the annual Paddle for Life. I paddled in Eric’s honor and in memory of Stephanie, my sister-in-law. The voyage raised over $65,000 for the Pacific Cancer Foundation, supporting Maui County residents with access to cancer education and treatment.

Tremendous effort goes into strengthening communities to handle disasters of all types. Strong buildings, infrastructure and economies are paramount to helping a community stay safe and robust. Yet, with each disaster event—be it Boston, New Orleans or Japan—we are struck by TV stories and social media tweets describing the remarkably resilient human spirit that binds a community together to move forward.

Facing a disease such as cancer is a more individualized, private affair. Community support is key for the person affected, as well as for friends and family. After Stephanie lost her ten-year battle with carcinoid cancer, my brother David found community by bringing hope to others through Happy Tails, a pet therapy program. Eric, now a retired paramedic, leads Colorado’s Firefighter Cancer Support Network. For both, community plays a vital role in healing and accepting.

“Imua” is the Hawaiian command to start paddling. It means “go forward.” It’s also a word of encouragement to keep going, particularly when faltering. Eric led me to the Pinks and put a swirly, girly pink paddle in my hands to say thank you. And, to remind me that we’re all connected.


Ocean Vodka: Celebrating Spirits, Sustainability and Love

Posted by on Apr 29, 2013 in Agriculture, Maui, Sustainability | 5 comments

Ocean Vodka: Celebrating Spirits, Sustainability and Love

When thinking about a gathering place to celebrate vodka, I usually think of a cool new bar or a neighborhood watering hole, such as the beloved Cheers, from the TV show of the same name, where everyone knows your name. I rarely think of sustainability visionaries, eco-consciousness or community outreach. Yet, this weekend my perception changed with the grand opening of Maui’s Ocean Vodka Organic Farm and Distillery, an exciting showcase of green business, sustainable agriculture and loads of local love.

Ocean Vodka, justifiably touted as the “best handcrafted vodka in the world,” is truly delicious. The company uses organically farmed sugar cane blended with deep ocean mineral water and a distilling process powered by the sun. Sprawled across 80 acres on the volcanic slopes of Haleakala, in the tranquil agricultural community of Kula in upcountry Maui, Hawaii (just down the road from my home), the farm includes waving fields of sugar cane varieties, a solar-powered craft distillery and bottling room, gift shop, and a Martini Garden, featuring a bubbling fountain surrounded by fledgling herb plants that will one day enhance the vodka. With the captivating tag line “the only spirit in the world made with the sun, ocean and organic earth,” what’s not to like?

Perhaps what I actually like best is their story—it’s local and it’s good: Ocean Vodka is the result of a labor of love, the leadership of Shay Smith (president), the dedication of the Smith family, some obvious business smarts, great partners, a commitment to ocean conservation, and a lot of brawn. That’s real spirit!

Roxanne Tiffin, owner of Kula Fields, a local Maui organic farm and delivery service, celebrating Ocean Vodka opening with husband Jesse.

Roxanne Tiffin, owner of Kula Fields, a local Maui organic farm and delivery service, celebrating Ocean Vodka Organic Farm and Distillery’s grand opening with husband Jesse.

At their grand opening, the Ocean Vodka team honored and embraced the Maui community through a traditional Hawaiian blessing ceremony, local musicians, teenagers offering exhilarating Taiko drumming, and steady servings of crispy pork, a local favorite. On the social media site Twitter, the  OceanVodka handle (username) was busy all day with visitors posting pictures and sharing their impressions. The real spirit of aloha was shown that day—the farm gate and distillery doors were thrown open wide for everyone to visit, take a tour, learn about the process, get to know one another and talk story. And that’s a good thing, because there was much to talk about. 

Feature Photo: Ocean Vodka President Shay Smith describes the sustainable distilling process for making organic vodka. 

US Terrorism: Are We Ready?

Posted by on Apr 19, 2013 in Disaster Response, Emergency Management, Terrorism | 1 comment

US Terrorism: Are We Ready?

Terrorism. We’ve learned, and we’ve absorbed.

Most assuredly, I agree, this is not a cause for celebration or satisfaction. This week has been a time for reflection by anyone working in the realm of disaster management, public safety and healthcare. The diligent efforts of the many professionals who work together to respond to the unthinkable paid off in Boston this week after the Boston Marathon bombings. On the streets, in emergency rooms, in emergency operations centers, on social media feeds, and elsewhere.

Paramedics load injured man into ambulance after he was injured in Boston Marathon bombings. Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images/AF

Paramedics attend to injured man after Boston Marathon bombings. Photo by Jim Rogash / Getty Images

Ever since those soul wrenching dark days after 9/11, we’ve been writing response plans, designing terrorism scenarios, conducting exercises, then rewriting plans, reworking exercises, developing concepts of operations (CONOPS), finding new approaches to meet the challenge of the eternal “what if.” And still, we have so much yet to learn.

So are we ready? I honestly don’t know–will we ever be? But what I do know is that we have gotten so much better. And the staffs at the Boston hospitals who received the mass casualties proved that all the hard work, as well as the baby steps, are working, as this New Yorker article aptly describes.


The New Yorker

2013 Boston Marathon

Community Voices, Inspired to Dream

Posted by on Jan 6, 2013 in Creativity, Innovation, Leadership | 0 comments

Community Voices, Inspired to Dream

Ever attended a TED or a TEDx event? It’s an amazing experience. Think of it as random acts of inspiration—a community of individuals drawn together to share their passion about ideas, inventions, music, life experiences and much more. Some speak. Some listen. Everyone connects. It’s a pretty darn cool experience. And Maui is lucky to have its own.

TEDx events (x=independently organized TED events) have been taking place for years, in big cities and small towns, even in remote locations like the Burning Man Festival in the Black Rock desert, where in 2011 I participated in (I don’t think one can simply attend) my first TEDx. As crazy and wonderful and inspiring as my desert experience was, last year I participated in the newly minted TEDxMaui. It was really special. And next Sunday, January 13, it’s back to inspire us again. I can’t wait.

Close to heart and home, the 2012 TEDxMaui event drew me to the spirituality of the aina (land) and the Hawaiian culture. I learned more about sand than I thought possible. I got to meet W.S. Merwin, Maui’s own U.S. Poet Laureate. I got to explore alternative energy. Sway in my seat to Taiko drumming. Yet, as a photographer, forged out of gritty social justice photojournalism in the deep south, the presentation which perhaps moved me most profoundly might have been Lisa Kristine’s images of global slavery. I left our 2012 gathering fired up, impressed with the endless talent this world offers, and again, reminded of my own unique dreams.

As we search for ways to build community, to build bridges of communication between our cultures, what better way to do so than to gather together to be inspired, by each other, and by that tiny voice inside oneself. If you haven’t had the chance to do so, join me and buy a ticket for a day of pure inspiration. Guaranteed, it’ll be worth every penny.



TEDx Black Rock City

TEDx Talk | Lisa Kristine | Glimpses of Modern Day Slavery

Leaning into the Fire: Rethinking the Language of Climate Change

Posted by on Nov 15, 2012 in Crisis & Risk Communication, Hurricane Sandy | 5 comments

Leaning into the Fire: Rethinking the Language of Climate Change

Yesterday I unintentionally lit a fire on Facebook. I ruminated about the need to identify and use new language for climate change. While I am no climate change expert by any stretch of the imagination, I’ve spent two decades steeped in disaster communications, risk reduction and community resilience. I had some thoughts to share, and my online community did as well. Lesson learned: open pandora’s virtual box in an informal forum and everyone gets a say—and a chance to learn something new.

What triggered my early morning writing was an article on the Homeland Security News Wire. The November 14 online article described a new book being published by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) that addresses how the engineering community is leaning forward to protect New York City from storm surges. According to the article, the book Storm Surge Barriers to Protect New York City: Against the Deluge explores many key topics of interest. The book, which I look forward to reading when released in early December, addresses long standing “acceptable” topics such as mitigation approaches for hurricanes, barrier concepts and designs, and modeling simulation. It also tackles more controversial topics such as sea level rise and ecological issues. All of which I believe to be relevant to protecting urban infrastructure, the environment, housing, people’s lives, and generally speaking, the underpinnings of community sustainability and resilience.

NY taxis in Hurricane Sandy flooded streets

Flooded streets in Queens, NY in 2012 Hurricane Sandy. Photo by KeystoneUSA-ZUMA/Rex Features

In my post I wondered if we were too late in starting this process of using new language and moving to action, noting that those in New Jersey and New York may have their own thoughts on this subject as they struggle with the devastation from Hurricane Sandy.  My conclusion: no—no matter what has happened (or what each of us believe), as a nation we need to proactively discuss, plan for and financially invest in ways to reduce the impact and deal with the consequences of a changing world. We are a nation of mixed societies, integrated cultures and a global community that is physically and socially experiencing major shifts in weather patterns, urban development, agricultural land use, health of coral reefs, and overall risk exposure. Now is the time to assertively move forward. Before we lose more—more quality of life, more environmental and economic resources, more time.

Talking about this “stuff” is difficult. While language empowers, it can also powerfully separate intelligent people into hardened, opposing camps. Words can create misunderstanding and distrust, and lead to inaction. As a nation, do we have the ability and political fortitude to identify and utilize a language that tackles these challenges with words that are acceptable across bipartisan lines? That is inclusive, not exclusive? That accepts and reflects that yesterday’s world is not today’s? 

2011 Tuscaloosa, Alabama tornado destruction

April 2011 tornado destruction in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Photo credit: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

I have a twelve-year old. I look at her and wonder if she understands any of this. I ask myself how can I help her understand the meaning of such things as cap and trade, carbon emissions, sea level rise, green technology? What she does understand is that the coral reef in her favorite swimming hole is dying. During our 2011 visit to Tuscaloosa, Alabama (where I went to undergraduate school) she learned about monster tornadoes and houses covered in “blue FEMA tarps,” and experienced the searing looks of suspicion shot at her by a child, about her age, listlessly sitting on the steps of a lot brimming with rubble. Now it’s up to me and those who teach my daughter and lead the nation to connect the dots on what it means to be a good citizen, to be resourceful, to problem solve the challenges of today and tomorrow.

I’ll read the book when it comes out. I’ll continue to support local conservation and teach and consult on social media for disaster response and recovery. But I’ll still be struggling with the language and looking for words to tell the whole story. And I’ll still be reaching out to my spirited online community to share with and learn from.


New Book Discusses Storm Surge Protection for New York City | Homeland Security News Wire
American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) |
Storm Surge Barriers to Protect New York City: Against the Deluge |



#Isaac: A Testimony to Digital Outreach

Posted by on Sep 5, 2012 in #SMEM, Communications Outreach, Emergency Management, FEMA, Risk Reduction, Social Media | 1 comment

#Isaac: A Testimony to Digital Outreach

“Please share.” This clear call-to-action by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on their social media sites is proving that in responding to Hurricane Isaac the agency is learning about and applying the power of social media. The agency, and even Administrator Craig Fugate himself, has been proactively spreading timely, critical information through an ongoing stream of Facebook ( and Twitter (@FEMA) posts. (more…)

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