With phone lines down and roadways disrupted or gang-controlled, news organizations and emergency officials scrambled to try to gain access to the parts of Haiti damaged by a powerful earthquake on Saturday morning. Port-au-Prince, the capital, is 80 miles west from the quake’s epicenter, near Les Cayes — and some four and half hours away by car.
The flight time from Port-au-Prince to Les Cayes is only 30 minutes. News services like The Associated Press tried to get reporters on medical or charter flights to document the state of the stricken region.
News photographs and reports began filtering through by Saturday afternoon, but in the interim, social media became a pivotal source of information about the earthquake’s devastation, supplying images and videos.
One video being picked up by multiple reporters and media outlets online shows the destruction of multiple houses and buildings as people try to help those that might be caught under the rubble.
The posts show people still in their pajamas or bath towels, out in the street seeking safety after fleeing violently trembling homes. Entire three-story buildings were flattened to eye-level. One video showed a group of men sifting through rubble to try to extract someone buried beneath.
This is not the first time that social media has filled an urgent news role in the Caribbean. Climate change has caused stronger storms and hurricanes that hit the area with more force, and suffering and paralyzing hits to infrastructure often hit social media first.
Social media platforms also have sometimes served as a communications network, where families could connect with loved ones when phone lines went down and learn about relief efforts, according to reporting from The Pulitzer Center.
That was true during Hurricane Maria in 2017 and also in 2010, when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, killing more than 220,000 people.