Minneapolis bridge wreck: bloggers at best, worst

ON BLOGS

August 12, 2007|By Andrew Ratner

The Interstate 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis this month demonstrated what blogs do best - and what they do worst.

Within minutes of the disaster on the Mississippi River, bloggers were conveying vivid descriptions of the tragedy on personal blogs. Thousands of photos were posted on picture-sharing sites like Flickr, critical information was quickly available about blood donor sites and ride-sharing networks and the massive surge of news coverage and video was being organized and catalogued.

"I'm shocked, but no longer shaking," wrote one account shortly afterward. "Description of collapse: Surprisingly quiet, but my entire warehouse apt shook quite a bit. Bridge fell so very slowly - poof. Yelled and yelled but no one answered. Only a handful of ppl in water, all got out ok and then began to help as well. Ran into woman who thought school bus was trapped on east side in fold of highway. Couldn't confirm it or get to the other bank to help."

Trade organizations like the Reston-based American Society of Civil Engineers, which describes itself as America's oldest national engineering society, quickly posted links to various reports of inspections that had been conducted on the 40-year-old span by highway officials (http:--www.uscritical infrastructure.blogspot.com/). Bloggers in the Twin Cities (including http:--minneapolis.metblogs.com/) pointed out how the emergency response was aided by "Wireless Minnesota," one of the country's largest municipal wi-fi systems.

Joan Buhrman, a spokeswoman for the civil engineers trade group, said the association linked to technical journals on its infrastructure blog two years ago to help people analyze the catastrophic failure of the levees in New Orleans after Katrina, and saw a continuing need for such online resources. "It's entirely something we see as beneficial to our members, a place to come for information," she said.

But the I-35W collapse also revealed many of the loose bolts rattling around the blogosphere.

Quicker than you could say "Katrina," the insta-experts had blamed the collapse on too much spent on welfare, the war in Iraq, big government, small government, tax cuts.

"If you'd like to make a full-on finger-pointing video, send it to story@mnstories.com," one blog invited, as if there were a need to scour for more rants. Wasn't talk radio available that day?

"Being the masochist that I am, I went to the Daily Kos to see the predictable politically oriented responses," wrote one blogger, referring to a popular liberal blog. "The Kossacks didn't disappoint. The first thread on the subject that I found went up at 7:45 p.m. EDT. ... The first commenter chimed in: `We spend billions in Iraq while we fall apart at home.' ... Funny -- when I saw the terrible scene on the news last night, the Iraq war never even entered my mind."

Other major news events in recent years have displayed the new frontier of the new media more dramatically. The enduring image of the Virginia Tech massacre in April was the grainy video that graduate student Jamal Albarghouti captured on his cell phone while crouched near Norris Hall as the shootings occurred.

The most widely circulated images from the bridge collapse, however, were from security cameras or helicopter video shot by traditional news outlets. Plenty of dramatic bridge collapse video is available online - but much of it is of the windblown Tacoma Narrows mishap of 1940 in Washington state.

However, as the probe continues into what was known and ignored about the I-35W - and perhaps other spans elsewhere - it's likely bloggers, especially with technical expertise, will continue to play a significant role in the developing story.

andrew.ratner@baltsun.com

Andrew Ratner, a former technology reporter, is Today editor of The Sun.

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