Feature Story

Tragedy and Technology Bring People Together

by Kirsten Chiala

A personal look at one woman's connection to the Philippines disaster.

We have all gotten used to being able to connect with family and friends daily, whether they are a few miles or a few thousand miles away, thanks to social media and mobile messaging. But when disaster strikes and connections are severed, the loss of a stable flow of information becomes very real. The tragic devastation in the Philippines highlights our reliance on communications technology, especially for those who have loved ones in harm’s way.

Bay Area-based Cisco consultant, Christine Dorffi knows first-hand how hard an information blackout can be. Typhoon Haiyan destroyed more than 80 percent of Tacloban City, disrupting power and communication lines for its population of 220,000. Dorffi grew up in this city, and last week was one of many trying desperately to contact relatives.

Dorffi’s own words provide a personal timeline of the tragedy:

Friday: “Total communication blackout, we had no word of my family’s conditions. My cousins from other regions tried to get to Tacloban to physically check on relatives there. They reached the city Sunday.”

Sunday afternoon: “One cousin was able to use a satellite phone to call and briefly give us updates. We learned one relative had drowned.”

Sunday night: “The city government of Tacloban used generators and allowed people to line up for 3 minutes of wifi use. Another cousin texted, “We are safe and intact. We need supplies. Money serves no use here. We have no way to communicate.” Our family in the Bay Area and Manila arranged to buy and pack food, water and medicine to send to Tacloban, not knowing if they would reach our relatives, but hoping it would help someone in need.”

Monday: “We heard seven of nine immediate family members were able to board cargo planes to Manilla. Two are hoping to get out when they can.”

Then Monday at work, Dorffi saw Cisco had set up a disaster relief fund for the Philippines, matching donations through its employee giving campaign. She emailed to see if she could participate and to say thank you. That’s when she found out that members of Cisco’s Tactical Operations Team were also headed in to help.

Dorffi made contact with the team, and they asked if she could provide local contacts to meet on the ground in nearby Cebu. Even there, electricity is off and on, so laptops and cellphones are hard to keep charged. Dorffi has been texting her Cisco, Philippine private foundation, and government contacts to connect the links.

It’s been a wrenching time for Dorffi and her family waiting to hear how her loved ones are faring. When she sent me a picture of her aunt, uncle and cousins waiting at the airport, she called the image “heartbreaking” and said it was a shock to see them in such a state with just the clothes on their backs.

Dorffi remains hopeful though, and calls the relief workers a blessing. She is thankful for all the groups sending food, water and medical teams, and grateful to the TACOPS team for helping provide the technology needed for those conducting disaster relief activities.

From the perspective of this Cisco consultant, I know that our company’s thoughts are with the people of the Philippines, and the men and women from all over the world who are helping them. There are many organizations conducting disaster relief campaigns benefiting the victims of Typhoon Haiyan, so please consider making a donation to help those in need. And if you are a Cisco employee, visit the Community Connection site to learn more about the employee giving campaign and how your donation can be matched by the Cisco Foundation.