Lt. Joe Morgan: Quick work aids missing-person searches

Morgan helped the Coast Guard create a system to track missing-person reports in the wake of Hurricane Katrina

The Coast Guard usually has no problem handling reports on missing people. But then, the agency has never encountered a crisis on the scale of Hurricane Katrina. Not only was a new system needed, but it was needed quickly.

Lt. Joe Morgan accepted the quick-turnaround assignment, working through the night Aug. 31 in the U.S. Coast Guard’s West Virginia Operations Systems Center, where he is a Web services project officer.

Supported by a three-person team, Morgan adapted a Coast Guard portal application, called Homeport, into a missing- and stranded-persons reporting system.

The portal is a secure Web site for sharing port security information among government agencies and companies.

Karrie Trebbe, Homeport project officer, said the team worked early-morning hours to avoid any daytime system outages. “When they had to do updates, they took it down at 2 a.m. and brought it up very quickly,” she said.

Homeport acted as a life preserver. It received 16,081 reports of Katrina victims needing to be rescued. In the end, the Coast Guard was credited with rescuing 33,545 people.

Morgan’s involvement in the Katrina relief effort began when the Coast Guard Command Center requested an online tool to handle the surge of missing-person reports coming in. The Coast Guard could not keep up by passing faxes and phone messages back and forth.

Morgan solved that problem by allowing family and friends to submit forms via the Web and then importing that information into a database. Authorized Coast Guard employees continuously updated the status of each case as active, found or still missing.

Loved ones were kept informed with phone calls or e-mail messages. As the Coast Guard’s efforts merged with those of the American Red Cross, Morgan configured the reporting system to export information to a Red Cross database.

The news media quickly spread the word about the Coast Guard’s Web-based reporting system. TV stations and Web sites such as FirstGov frequently displayed the site’s address on TV screens and computer monitors.

The volume of missing-person reports, which numbered in the thousands, did not shake Morgan, who is accustomed to data overload. But details in those reports — a missing grandmother or a person living alone with a dog — touched him. “Anything we could do to help with the missing-person recovery effort was very satisfying,” he said.

Officials at Coast Guard headquarters let Morgan do what he needed to do and filed the appropriate waivers and paperwork afterward.

“We weren’t unaware that he was jumping through hoops,” said Becky Dyche, a Web program manager at Coast Guard headquarters. “We said, ‘Don’t you worry about it. We’ll take care of it.’” Dyche obtained permission to collect private information and create a survey later. The reporting system went live March 1; she received written approval March 2.

Morgan and his team were dedicated to dealing with the immediate crisis caused by Hurricane Katrina. But they were also thinking ahead to the next emergency, said Lt. Cmdr. Ron Riedinger, assistant division chief of Operations IV at the center. With Hurricane Rita arriving a few weeks later, he said, “they were prepared to use the same system, with some improvements.

Photos copyright 2006 Stan Barouh.

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