The tsunami in Phuket left Paola di Maio with little more than 4 liters of water but, crucially, an Internet connection. As the information systems designer and her friends helped with the rescue effort while helicopters buzzed overhead, she realized that one thing was missing: information.
Together with Dina Mehta, Peter Griffin and a small band of other Internet enthusiasts in the region, including students from New Delhi and a TV producer in Sri Lanka, Di Maio set up SEA-EAT, the South East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami weblog. Visited by 21,000 people Tuesday, it has fast become the key online clearing house for people to share information and contact details.
While government hotlines jam or ring unanswered and international aid efforts appear uncoordinated, desperate relatives have gone online to search for their loved ones or simply to help the aid effort.
At the scene of the disaster, survivors have also bypassed official communication channels. As well as virtual noticeboards, hundreds of actual noticeboards have sprung up. Names, numbers, photographs and appeals for information about missing friends and relatives have been pinned up outside hospitals and beside resorts in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and India.
The founders of the virtual rescue centers such as SEA-EAT are not surprised that people are turning to the Internet, with its instantly and succinctly published information offering everything from contact numbers of consulates to details about how to get a portable toilet.
"The Internet is being used more and more by the families of victims because it is faster and the communication is much more effective," said Ankit Gupta, one of SEA-EAT's volunteers based in New Delhi. "One always comes across red tape no matter what in our third world countries."
Di Maio said governments and aid agencies could use the Web far more.
"The Internet, reasonably reliable and fast, is not used by authorities nor rescue services to communicate, despite the fact that it has been up without interruption during the entire crisis. Governments and authorities should use the Internet as we do. Costs would be lower and results much better coordinated."
Another online volunteer, Bala Pitchandi, stayed up until midnight at his home in New Jersey in the US helping to publish information on SEA-EAT.
"Blogging is such a powerful tool since it can be used by ordinary people like me to publish views and news," he said. "Dozens of volunteers who have never met have gotten together to start this and many of the contributors are there at the scene to help the world know what's really going on."