Web sites that worked

If government Web sites were in their adolescence before Sept. 11, the terrorist attacks that occurred that day quickly forced them to grow up.

Most federal sites saw record numbers of visitors and often struggled under unusual circumstances to get information online as quickly as possible.

Undoubtedly, the World Wide Web has become one of the places people turn to for information. But agencies also used their sites to collect information. In the days following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the FBI quickly transformed its Internet Fraud Complaint Center's site (www.ifccfbi.gov) into an online focal point for tips about the attackers. FBI officials said they received more than 54,000 tips in the week after the attacks.

Yet after years of broadening their Internet presence and focusing on building an electronic government, most agency Web sites trailed media sites and often provided little more than background data and links to other sites.

That was perhaps best illustrated when President Bush, during his Sept. 20 speech before a joint session of Congress, called on Americans to "continue to support the victims of this tragedy with your contributions" and then directed them to a private-sector site to make donations.

The Web's Many Roles

Most agency Web sites did rally and post information about the airplane crashes. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was one of the first to respond.

Because of FEMA's central role in responding to emergency situations, the agency felt obligated to communicate early on, said Marc Wolfson, a FEMA spokes.man responsible for the agency's Web site content.

"When the attack occurred, we knew we had to get something up right away," Wolfson said. "People just naturally gravitate to [the Web site] when something bad happens."

Although nonessential employees were permitted to go home, the public affairs staff felt it was necessary to stay at work, answering phone calls and posting Web updates throughout the day to tell people "what the heck was going on," he said. "We just decided we weren't going to leave."

At about 10:30 a.m. on Sept. 11, FEMA posted its first news update, saying that the agency had activated its operations center and that FEMA leaders were consulting with staff at the White House and at other agencies.

That first day, FEMA staff members posted six updates to the site, culminating with an announcement that President Bush had authorized federal assistance for New York.

On Sept. 12, the agency posted more releases that provided recovery updates as well as information on how the public could help victims, how victims could apply for disaster aid and how parents could talk to their children about the attacks. Advice on talking to children was the third most popular page 10 days after the attacks, Wolfson said.

Alan Goldstein, who operates the Navy's Web site, was not in his Pentagon office when the American Airlines Boeing 757 crashed into the west side of the building, not far from his desk. Goldstein—who is one of about 1,000 Navy personnel who have been moved to a nearby office building—immediately went home and prepared to update the Navy site.

"I have complete redundancy at home," said Goldstein, assistant chief of information for technology integration. He carries backup copies of the Navy's Web site on Iomega Corp. Zip disks. "I carry them with me all the time," he said.

Early in the afternoon of Sept. 11, the Navy posted a four-paragraph story saying that the Pentagon had been struck.

Home also became the base of operations for the staff of FirstGov, the federal Web portal. FirstGov's offices are near the White House and were evacuated early in the day.

"This had never been done before," said Deborah Diaz, FirstGov's deputy associate administrator. "It was literally pulling together the information as soon as it went up. We were compiling, looking at news stories."

The Federal Aviation Administration posted information largely in response to phone calls it was receiving from the public, said FAA spokeswoman Tammy Jones, and also as a way to help ease the torrent of phone calls.

For example, the agency received a flood of calls from people interested in applying for new federal air marshal positions. The agency directed people to its job site—which was divided into two categories: air marshal jobs and all others—to learn more about the positions and how to apply. As of Sept. 20, 555,000 people had viewed the page and 100,000 had downloaded applications, said Eric Chatmon, FAA's manager of IT services.

The agency also set up a simple Web form in an effort to deal with the deluge of calls from people offering safety ideas.

Many agencies also used their sites to reach employees. The Defense Department created a Web site specifically to deal with the traffic issues that have resulted from the cleanup and increased security around the Pentagon.

The General Services Administration, which operates most federal buildings and provides telephone service under the FTS 2001 contracts, used its Web site to notify people about the status of government buildings and telephone services.

A GSA spokeswoman said the biggest problem was deciding where to put information. Few GSA customers actually go to the Public Building Service's Web site, she said, so the agency provided a link on its home page to relevant information.

A Rush to Knowledge

The public rushed to other federal sites in search of information — any information. The Defense Technical Information Center, which runs nearly 100 DOD Web sites including DefenseLink (www.defenselink.mil), ran out of bandwidth. DOD had more than 11 million visitors during the week of the crash, more than double its average number, DOD officials said.

During that time, DOD's most popular page featured a history of the Pentagon (www.defenselink.mil/pubs/pentagon).

FirstGov, which typically gets 1.5 million visitors a week, had that many visitors in one day, Diaz said. "Even though we had specific links to the FBI and FEMA, people wanted that front door to the government," she said.

The day after the attacks, FEMA's site had a record number of hits, surpassing the previous high set during Hurricane Floyd's East Coast landing two years ago. Unbeknownst to FEMA, the nonprofit Ad Council supplied banner ads promoting the site that were displayed by prominent media outlets such as the Cable News Network LP's CNN.com.

"It just makes us even more aware of how important it is to keep things updated," Wolfson said.

Coming up Short

Despite the efforts, some Web experts say agencies fell short.

The Justice Department launched a Victims and Family Assistance Web site to provide victims and family members with information on subjects ranging from finding legal assistance to obtaining reimbursements for medical expenses and funerals.

Eventually, the site will have password-protected areas where victims and family members can get quick access to sensitive information such as case-related notifications. There might also be password- protected areas for discussions among victims, according to an agency official.

But for now, the site's offerings are relatively sparse. An official message expresses sympathy and promises to help. A list of frequently asked questions begins with "Can a victim apply directly to OVC [the Office for Victims of Crime] for help?" The answer is "No. However " OVC does support state compensation programs.

A link labeled "helpful Web sites" lists eight sites, including the National Domestic Preparedness Office, which contained no information related to the Sept. 11 attacks.

LibertyUnites.org, the site Bush mentioned in his speech to Congress, enables visitors to make online donations to charities and offers other ways for people to help.

"The government's response has been a big missed opportunity," said Web site designer Pam Fielding. Federal agency Web sites "could have played an important role in keeping people informed, but they didn't. People were searching around like crazy trying to find official information." But they didn't find it on government sites.

"We saw average citizens trying to help in any way they could," she said. But there was no help to be had from most government Web sites, said Fielding, whose company, e-advocates, conducts advocacy campaigns via the Internet.

Agencies may be slow to post information on their sites because the public relies on the information to be 100 percent accurate, say some contractors. "It has to be the right information that's put out to the public," said John Coughlin, director of information assurance programs at Lockheed Martin Information Support Services.

Brown University political science professor Darrell West, who conducted a recent study of the effectiveness of government Web sites, said agencies were "slow to take advantage of the inter.active aspects of the Internet." In this time of crisis, "they could have set up online donation systems that would allow people to give money."

He also noted that as agencies put new information online, they are pulling older information. For instance, the DOD site no longer offers a feature that allowed families to find troop locations and training exercises.

"My sense is that over the next few months, more information will disappear from government Web sites," he said.

Dan Caterinicchia, Diane Frank, Judi Hasson, Greg Langlois and William Matthews contributed to this article.


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