Following the massive 9.0 earthquake and the ensuing tsunami that wrought tremendous damage on northern Japan, the State Department sent consular officers from around the region to help out. As I had lived in Japan for many years and speak Japanese, I was asked to help out and of course agreed to do so. Everyone in my home post of Guangzhou has been incredibly supportive.
In a disaster like this one, the entire embassy, the constituent consulates, and U.S. diplomatic posts in other countries in the region all pull together to help American citizens in distress. Indeed, safeguarding the welfare of U.S. citizens overseas is the top goal of the State Department. We started off the crisis with a list of several thousand names that we had to account for. These people had either registered themselves with the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, or their names had been reported to the State Department by friends or family in the United States. In many cases, it has been possible to reach people by phone, see that they are okay, and then mark them down in our system as "accounted for." It has been much more of a challenge, however, in the towns and villages where the damage was heaviest.
The embassy early on dispatched several teams of consular officers and local staff to the hardest-hit areas. These people did some very difficult work, and it is thanks in large part to their valiant efforts that we have at this point been able to get the number of "unaccounted for" in those northern prefectures down from hundreds to just a handful.
Those of us working in the Embassy Consular Task Force command center have also been working around the clock. We have been relying on phone calls, email, and checks of public and consular records to determine where people are. We have learned that one of the most effective tools for locating people in 2011 is social networking media.
Following the quake, the U.S. Internet search engine Google created a special website just for the people of the affected areas. People who are looking for someone can log that person's information into the software. Those who were affected by the disaster but are okay, or people who know of someone who was affected by the disaster, can input that information. As it is all searchable using Google's amazing software, many families have used this tool to locate missing loved ones and put their minds at ease. Seeing as I was also spending all day looking for people, I found this tool incredibly useful as well, finding the contact information for people who knew people I was looking for. I was able to close more than a few cases this way.
Another incredibly useful tool has been Facebook, which I personally have used to close the cases of four people who were in the most heavily damaged part of Japan. Having a name and sometimes a photo of the person made it relatively easy to locate their Facebook profile. After I did, I would send them messages from my own Facebook account, or look for their friends and family on Facebook and contact them. Interestingly, I would usually get a response back very quickly, as most of these people had been using Facebook as a primary means of keeping in touch with their loved ones in the United States and Japan. Our Ambassador to Japan John Roos has also been using Twitter as an effective means of distributing information to Americans in Japan. One of the lessons I have taken away from this experience is the power of social networking media to keep people connected during the most trying times.
Alan Clark serves as a Consular Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, China. He is currently on temporary duty assignment in Tokyo, Japan.