The earthquake that has just struck Haiti is a natural disaster of massive proportions, and it’s very difficult for us to wrap our heads around it. The current estimated death toll is 30,000 to 100,000 – which is a huge number. According to Tales From the Hood

And even at the low end of that estimate, it is still a big number. Typhoon’s Morakot, Ketsana and Parma, plus a tsunami in the Samoa Island Group, plus both of last Fall’s earthquakes in Indonesia, combined did not reach a death toll of 30,000.

According to MSF, there are no working hospitals in the country; the National Palace and other major government buildings have collapsed; many of the U.N. offices have been damaged and U.N. officials killed. My prayers go out to all those affected by this disaster. I cannot even really fathom the magnitude of pain these people must be going through.

What has impressed me is the extent this disaster has reverberated through social media channels. Through Twitter and blogging, people shared their sentiments about the disaster. Citizen journalism was at its best, with Haitians reaching out to provide news updates via Twitter despite chaos, confusion and damage to regular communication channels. People across the globe have, amazingly, been able to follow the developments practically in real-time. Earlier today Daniel Morel created a Twitter account, @photomorel, and posted a series of shocking high-quality photos depicting what exactly was happening in Haiti. @marvinady has also posted photos of the devastation; these were some of the first photos of the devastation. Hashtags #Haiti and #Haitihelp are being used to keep tabs on Haiti updates.

Social networking sites have provided something incredibly important that the New York Times or BBC simply cannot provide: a human connection. By following someone on Twitter and seeing their pictures, we feel closely connected to them. Social media, by connecting people, has allowed for an outpouring of empathy that simply isn’t possible through the mainstream media. We’re getting information as it happens from those suffering or witnessing this destruction. It’s not some abstract natural disaster – it’s happening to real people. People we can identify and follow on Twitter and via blogging. This intensely human connection is social media’s most powerful tool.

Social networks have also proved invaluable in gathering much-needed donations for relief efforts. Wyclef Jean took Twitter by storm and mobilized followers to donate to his Yele Haiti Foundation even before most NGOs started their relief efforts. Today afternoon, Yele was the #1 trending topic on Twitter, followed closely by the Red Cross at #2. Non-profits have creatively utilized social networks to make donating as easy as possible. The Red Cross and the IRC have both created ways for supporters to quickly donate $5 or $10 by texting to a certain number; these messages have been Retweeted, spreading like wildfire through the social web. These text message campaigns have been very successful, raising millions in the past couple of days (some are a scam, but these two are not — so do make sure you check out who you’re texting to).

This was truly a social media response, and I’m proud to see my fellow citizens working together to disseminate important news and ramp up donations. This is social media at it’s best: people collaborating and reaching out to do something good.

Immediate disaster relief is vital, but we can’t forget that the hardest work is yet to come. This earthquake will have a devastating longer-term effect on Haiti. Already a poor country, Haiti will suffer immensely from the aftermath: failed and broken infrastructure. It will be difficult to pick up the pieces and rebuild the country again. While I’m glad to see the impact of social media, I only hope the momentum lasts enough to provide continued support for future rebuilding efforts. So keep Haiti in mind even after a few weeks when the situation may not be all over your Twitter of Facebook feeds!

Here’s a quick roundup of some excellent posts to keep up with news on Haiti/figure out where to donate:

My personal recommendation for donations is Partners in Health:
Stand With Haiti