Ten years on, I am on ground zero, and this place barely looks like anything fateful ever happened here. Sharp eyes will however notice evacuation routes are now as prominent as road signs around town. Otherwise, it’s business as usual.
I was in Kuala Lumpur in December 2004, glued to screens when the deadly Indian Ocean tsunami first struck parts of Indonesia and Thailand. A day later, I signed-up to join a group of self-organizing volunteers online, after reading about an opportunity to assist. I worked briefly as a wiki editor, combing through the rolling blog, where the latest information first got posted by a larger pool of posters, and organize information by self-contained topical pages. Volunteering time online — gathering (hopefully) useful information to those unfortunate to be in places where the tsunami struck — was a lot like hit or miss, not knowing if it was of any use at all. I was working mostly on the information but none connecting with whoever human on the other end of the line looking for help (others in the team tried to do that with Skype — a relatively new thing at the time), so it was hard to tell without any sort of feedback or useful stats. I am pretty sure help via the internet was both absurd and useless in areas like Banda Aceh, where the only way to help was to somehow to eject oneself physically there, or alternatively send food, aid material.
The premise was that cellphone lines would be jammed but not so with the internet, which meant whoever had access could potentially search for information, find the blog and wiki pages. That said, one only needs to look at exposed electric and telephone lines, and realize they’d likely never survive the first and second order effects of a tsunami that uprooted trees and dislodged buildings without discretion. Of course, we were not thinking about things like these.
There is a lot of grief associated in any aftermath, which volunteers tend to internalize, and develop a certain emotional stability — stop hands from shaking. I realized I wasn’t cut out for this.