Computers provided link to earthquake zone

January 18, 1994|By Dallas Morning News

Roads of mere concrete went down in rubble, but Southern California's section of the information superhighway mostly survived yesterday's earthquake.

People whose telephones were useless for long-distance voice calls were able to get the word out using Internet, Prodigy, America Online and other computer-linked systems.

"This is the only link I have to civilization right now," messaged an America Online subscriber. The long-range computer linkups survived because they work differently from standard phone systems, said Carol Wallace, a spokeswoman for Prodigy.

Most local phone service in the Los Angeles area was unaffected or quickly restored after the quake. However, long-distance connections were blocked by a flood of calls and Pacific Bell's decision to hold lines open for emergency use only.

The Prodigy switching stations in Los Angeles and the rest of the country are connected by different lines, Ms. Wallace said. Other subscription services circumvented the long-distance logjam the same way, like an express lane on the information highway. But not every electronic on and off ramp was open yesterday, said Rusty Williams, general manager for Delphi, another online subscriber service.

"There are places of the information highway that fall apart in an earthquake as well," he said. "There are schools out there that are down, that aren't on the network."

But those failures didn't close down the rest of the network. People across the country exchanged news, rumors, offers of help and expressions of sympathy as the horrific pictures flashed on TV screens. Some of the messages were complaints.

"The telephone company needs to get on the information highway and create an online emergency line for local callers to get out," said Craig D8478, participating in a live "newsroom" discussion that the 500,000 subscribers to the America Online service could join.

The Prodigy service, a 1 million-subscriber joint venture of International Business Machines Corp. and Sears, Roebuck and Co., established a special bulletin board for people who wanted to talk about the quake. More than 4,000 messages hit the board in the first six hours.

Yesterday's bulletin board served as a clearinghouse for questions about damage in Petaluma, Calif., or possible connections to recent quakes in Pennsylvania.

A Dallas subscriber identified as Marva Lanier, for instance, offered to make phone calls to Dallas and Fort Worth residents, if any California callers affected by the quake could get through to her box number by electronic mail. Such relay services sprung up in almost all parts of the country, ranging from Olympia, Wash., to Mobile, Ala.

The relays even took to the air, with some subscribers to the landline services taking messages to their ham radios and broadcasting information for worried relatives. With television showing pictures of flames and destruction, some California locals used the Prodigy bulletin board as a means of calming general fears.

"I can assure you that even though it seems on TV that we have been flattened, there is relatively little damage to homes," messaged a Prodigy subscriber identified as James Morrissey of Anaheim, Calif.

He was participating in an online discussion about damage in the Northridge area, at the quake's epicenter.

A Burbank, Calif., man known on America Online as Noisehead was among those who took to the network for comfort and perspective.

"It is nice at this point," Martin Brumbach messaged, "to get some info not delivered by anchor people."

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