Twitter and the Earthquake in Haiti

(This was originally written for the Mayo Clinic’s Center for Social Media blog when I was on the External Advisory Committee there.)
(This was originally written in 2011 – before certain political figures and television “former” stars gave Twitter a bit of a black eye so to speak).

Many people think that the only thing Twitter is good for is telling people what you had for dinner and what coffee shop you are at.


Let me tell you a story about how Twitter worked to help the orphans in Haiti……

Prior to January 12, 2010, I used Twitter for a couple of main reasons:

  • To interact with real estate and mortgage people all over the country.   It is a great way to keep up with people all over the country, talk to them about what’s happening and to not feel so “alone.”
  • To keep up the news and the markets.   In the mortgage world, it was and is very important to keep on top of what is happening in the markets, the economic reports, the direction of the interest rate market and things like that.

So, I had found a number of the main news sources and was following them.    Places like the Wall Street Journal, the LA Times, the Washington Post, CNBC, the Today Show, Ann Curry, Anderson Cooper, Katie Couric, Al Roker, Barry Ritholtz and a bunch more were all on my “follow” list.   I also followed all of the local TV stations and newspapers and their reporters.   I created a separate list in TweetDeck (my favorite and almost only twitter app) that shows only what they are saying.

Now keep in mind, the orphanage that my wife and I adopted our two youngest children from is about 15 miles outside of Port Au Prince Haiti.

Well, I’m sitting at my computer at 5:07 pm on Tuesday, January 12, 2010 and Tweetdeck pops up one of those boxes in the upper corner of my screen showing one of the new tweets that just came in.    It was a tweet that changed my life forever.

“Major 7.5 Earthquake hits Port Au Prince Haiti” and then a link to their article.    I clicked on it, read the article with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.    This was bad.   Devastatingly bad.

Within 10 minutes, I had reached our Adoption Coordinator via instant messenger (located in Colorado) and she was on a cell phone with John B (the orphanage director’s husband).    So about 25 minutes after the earthquake, I had confirmed news that our orphanage had survived and that we had experienced no casualties at the orphanage (though we didn’t know the status of our staff who weren’t on duty at that point.)

And then the phone calls started coming.   Being an adoptive parent and a board member, many families who were in process of adopting knew me and my family and started calling us and asking us what we knew about what was going on with the earthquake.   I’m so glad that I was able to reassure them that their child was safe within 25 minutes of the earthquake.

From 5:15 PM on Tuesday until 4:00 AM Wednesday morning, I spent virtually the entire time glued to the computer and the phone.   I was scouring all of the major news websites but I soon learned that I was able to find out more news of what was really happening in Haiti and with the earthquake on Twitter than I was anywhere else.    So, I’m searching Twitter using terms like #Haiti and #PAP and #Earthquake and getting live reports from people on the ground in Haiti.    I was then able to pass that information on to our supporters and adoptive parents.   Using Twitter to keep on breaking news from the “front lines” is a great benefit.

But that wasn’t the most powerful way that Twitter changed the lives of orphans in Haiti on January 12, 2010.    The most important aspect of Twitter that made a difference that day is Twitter’s ability to be the great equalizer.   I’ve had interactions with people on Twitter who I never would have had the opportunity to if it weren’t for Twitter.   News reporters, CNBC guest commentators, PGA golfers and others are all on “that” list of people who I’ve tweeted with that I never would have otherwise.    But probably the most popular one is Ann Curry from the Today Show.

About 8:30 or so that night, Ann Curry posted on Twitter, “Trying to get in touch with anyone in Port Au Prince Haiti who speaks English – need an interview.”    I chimed in, “I’m “talking” with our orphanage there – they all speak English.”

We went back and forth a bit trying to connect.   At the same time, I was IM’ng with our staff in Colorado and they were talking/texting with our staff in Haiti (when they could get through.)    Then I got a message from Ann – “How do we get in touch with them?”    Shortly after that, I got an e e-mail that said:

Tom Vanderwell, Ann Curry is following you  on Twitter

I haven’t framed it yet, but I think I’m going to.

It was then that I had to step away from the computer for a minute because the power of Twitter just kind of hit me.    Here was this mortgage lender from West Michigan talking to one of the anchors of the Today Show in the middle of the first night of an international disaster.

All because of two things:

  • The power of Twitter to be the great equalizer – More of the “high profile” people are accessible than they have ever been.
  • The willingness to speak up.   Twitter is most powerful when you aren’t a Twitter “Stalker” (always listens but never says anything) but also aren’t a “Twitter Hog” (someone who clutters up the space with very little of importance.)

Back to the story – Ann and I exchanged a few more DMs and she got the contact info that they needed down in Haiti.    About 30 minutes later, I got a Facebook message from the orphanage director’s daughter (working on her laptop outside the orphanage where she could still get a signal – they didn’t know if it was safe to go inside).     The Facebook message said that Dixie was talking to a producer from NBC.

What was the end result of the Twitter conversations that I had with Ann Curry?

The Today Show started the Wednesday morning broadcast (the day after) with an interview with the orphanage director.  Because of Twitter, Ann Curry’s willingness to be accessible and my willingness to speak up, the orphans in Haiti, especially the ones at “my” orphanage got a lot more publicity than they would have otherwise.    And that additional publicity led to additional support at a time when we really needed it.

My recommendations are:

  • Set up Twitter to develop a list/group (depending on what app you use) for the news people that would impact your life and your work.
  • Don’t be afraid to interact with those people and places – not as a spammer or trying to sell something but as someone who cares about their community and has something useful to add.

You’ll be amazed at how powerful Twitter can be.


Once in a Lifetime? Yeah, right…..

What do you do when a once in a lifetime natural disaster happens twice?

In less than 7 years time?

6 years, 8 months and 22 days to be exact.

January 12, 2010 – a day that will forever be etched in the hearts and minds of those who care about that little island and country to the south of Cuba.  The day an earthquake flattened vast portions of Port Au Prince Haiti.

October 4, 2016 – a day that is becoming etched in the hearts and minds of those who care about Haiti.    The day that Matthew slammed into southern Haiti.

The day that he wiped out upwards of 80% of an already scarce food source.

The day that he leveled 9 out of 10 structures in towns with 40,000 and 70,000 people in them.

I read a report today that said that a certain road (I don’t remember the name) that was the only link between one town and the rest of the  country was currently under 15 meters of water.   15 meters.  

Think about that.

How do you handle once in a life time – twice in 7 years?

What sort of emotional toll does that take?

On the people who live there – and the people who help there.

What sort of physical toll does it take – survivor’s guilt in Northern Haiti – because they are fine?

How can “we” because I firmly believe the right thing is for all of us to help our fellow man – how can we do it right this time?    Because substantial evidence exists that we were not prepared for the earthquake and didn’t do it right.

Can you have Post Traumatic Stress from something that happened almost 7 years ago?

I believe you can.   I believe it is happening and it’s going to continue to be one of the challenges that Haiti faces as it attempts and works towards recovering from a body blow from Hurricane Matthew.

Ask yourself, what can you do to help?


Traveling at the Speed of Pain

I’ve been having a lot of conversations the last couple of weeks with people who are in pain.   Pain from remembering an earthquake in Haiti that happened 6 years ago.   Pain from emotional illnesses.   Pain from relational battle scars.   Pain from losses.   Pain from mourning – mourning the loss of people but also mourning the loss of “what could have been.”   Pain from climbing mountains and finding additional mountains behind those mountains.  Pain from physical illnesses. 

It’s hard.

It’s really hard.   It’s really really hard.

Especially when there are no easy answers.   Or at least very few easy answers.

How do you get over the pain of one of the biggest natural disasters in the history of the world?

Even if you weren’t there, how do you get over the ramifications of, the trauma of it, the changes it made for you and people you care about it?

It’s really beyond words.   

But then our pastor preached on the resurrection of Lazarus and the shortest Bible verse – John 11:35 – “Jesus Wept.”

I’ve always thought that Jesus was crying because he was sad that Mary and Martha and Lazarus had to go through all of “that.”

No, Jesus was weeping because He was angry.   He wasn’t angry at Lazarus, he was angry at evil and angry at death.

Satan was making life hard and painful and Jesus was mad about it.

It’s okay to get mad.

It’s okay to get angry at the evil in the world.

Don’t give up and accept it.   Get mad about it.   Put  your hand in Jesus’s hand and push back.

I can’t repair the damage of the earthquake in Haiti.   At least not for everyone, I can’t.

But I can identify the pain, I can say, “I see your hurt and I will bring you to our father in heaven.”

Name the pain, acknowledge that it’s okay for them to feel that pain.   Help them put their trust in the only one who can truly help them defeat the pain they face.

Oh and be His hands and feet wherever you can.


6 Years But No Time at All

Tuesday, January 12 was the 6 year anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti.  

It was a time to look back and remember.   Remember those who are no longer here on this earth.   Remember those who are here but still deal with the after effects of that horrible time.

I was reminded last night that at the 2nd Anniversary of the quake, I had asked a number of the families who brought their kids home immediately after the quake to share an update on what those two years were like.  

I had lost track of them but thanks to one of the dads (Brandon), I was able to find them.  

The stories along with a video of the homecoming of 9 of the families in Grand Rapids are at   There is a LOT of data on that page, so if it loads slowly, be patient.

Enjoy the walk back down memory lane, share it with those who were impacted and have a box of Kleenex handy.

It’s been 6 years but in many ways, it’s been no time at all.