WhatsApp message from Moriam Nessa at 11:09 Monday morning: “My sister is stranded in Srinigar. She is 9 months pregnant. And they need help…Water level has already crossed the 2nd floor of their house. 3 houses have collapsed in their neighborhood since morning.”
WhatsApp message at 3:24 that afternoon from the Indian Army: “Rescue teams will be going there. So don’t they will be all right.”
WhatsApp message from Moriam Nessa at 8:27 the next morning: “My sister has been rescued. All thanks to you and your team. They wouldn’t have made it without you.”
The exchange, reported by the Hindustan Times, is but a glimpse of the role social media has been playing in helping the millions caught up in the catastrophic floods that have hit northeast India and Kashmir in the past few weeks.
As the force of a natural disaster pummels the region, especially Kashmir, with violent floods claiming the lives of hundreds, the power of digital crowdsourcing is being harnessed to locate those missing or stranded, with Google launching the Jammu and Kashmir Floods “person finder.”
The online database, which allows people to search for and report people missing in the floods, was set up to assist those frantically trying to reach missing loved ones as well as people stranded who were desperately posting their location online in an attempt to alert rescue teams.
The Twitter account @jkfloodrelief, operated by concerned citizens as far away as the United States and Singapore, has helped launch the digital search effort, gaining the support of Twitter India, Google India as well as voluntary organizations and other businesses, the Hindustan Times reported.
The information received through social media channels is sent to a dedicated WhatsApp group set up by the army, which connects all major stakeholders in the emergency response. Through these efforts, a heavily pregnant woman was rescued on Tuesday.
Google spreadsheets are being used to create databases of information response teams can draw on. One sheet split into “I’m Lost” and “I’m looking for” is compiling information to feed into the Google person finder database, including information on where people were last seen and contact numbers of those searching for them.
The worst floods in half a century to hit India and Pakistan have claimed the lives of at least 400, and Kashmir’s main city of Srinagar has been submerged in a rising deluge.
Across India and Pakistan, the border of which Kashmir straddles, administered in parts by both sides, more than 400 people have been killed in the violent waters and in landslides caused by unrelenting rains, with troops claiming to have evacuated 60,000 people, the Associated Press reported.
Images of the crisis show hospitals turned to swimming pools and people clutching onto trees or standing on the roofs of houses stranded in a swirling flood of water as far as the eye can see.
A similar initiative was an “SOS list” started a few days ago by the Self Help Group For Kashmir Flood Victims on the Web site justpaste.it. Posts detailed names, locations and contacts for relatives and friends who were missing and stranded individuals, as well as whole families, posted their location and pleaded desperately in their posts for help to be sent.
One post solicited help for a press photographer stranded on a roof in Srinagar city who managed to phone but pleaded that this was his last chance at rescue.
Another asked for any information about a family of five:
Guys, do you have any information about House No: 98,#JawaharNagar, near #AbuBakrMasjid, A family of 5 is trapped there. Names: Farukh Ahmed Bhat (50+), Dilshada (45), Shahid (Vicky) (30+), Nousheen (25+), Noureen (20+).
In one house, five families posted on the page for help:
4 families r trapped in a single house along with my family at kursu rajbagh allmost near in between huriyat office and old british school….they r allmost 16 including some kids nd elderly…water is raising…
As phone coverage failed in parts of the flood-hit region, the response effort grew to be even more of a challenge, and panic rose among those unable to contact loved ones for days.
#JKFloodRelief If any1 in kashmir has a working MOBILE other than Aircel tell them2go2Settings>Network>Manual Search then Select Aircel— #JKFloodRelief (@jkfloodrelief) September 10, 2014
This is not the first time Kashmiris are finding creative digital ways around communication blackouts and mobilizing. A four-year ban on SMS messaging across Kashmir was only lifted this May, and during bouts of unrest, when strikes and curfew left people stuck in their homes, people took to social media to air their views and provide information about their local areas.
Many people have taken to Twitter, using the social media itself as a platform to crowdsource information about those lost or stranded. Twitter users are providing the most recent information on which areas are affected, relief efforts, where phone coverage is operating and in an attempt to get information about loved ones.
#KashmirFloods pl onpass info about missing persons Gurdas Ram (78yrs)and Keval Ram (50yrs) Indira Nagar, Srinagar to Mr Wadhwa 9953307605— Smita Prakash (@smitaprakash) September 9, 2014
500 people stuck in L D Hospital Srinagar without food or water. #KashmirFloods Help please! Urgent!— Basharat Peer (@basharat_peer) September 9, 2014
CONFIRMED :- Phone calls are going through to Hyderpora, Waanbal, Rawalpora, and Bagh e Mahtab right now. #KashmirFloods— #KashmirFloods (@NaqKash) September 10, 2014
And it’s not just social media users. A group of local young men set up a call center to field desperate requests from people seeking information or rescue, and have so far received more than 45,000 calls.
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