Disasters in the Internet Age

The Internet -- more than any other tool -- is proving to be a significant means of communication during disasters

On Sept. 15, through a private Web site called LATalk.org, Ruby pleaded for help. She asked whether anyone knew the whereabouts of her three aunts, who were missing since Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana Aug. 29. She wrote that she had already searched through many Web sites established to help people find family and friends.

Several weeks later she wrote: "Does anybody read these things for real? If I just had a phone number or a way to talk to somebody. I need to find my aunts. Please, please help. It's been a month now. HELP, please."

But on Oct. 22, she posted good news. "I found my three aunts," she wrote on LATalk.org. "They are all doing well. I have talked to two of them, have the number to call the third. Thanks for all of your prayers and help. I am so happy and grateful they are still alive. Again, THANKS SO MUCH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

LATalk.org is one of many Web sites designed to help Gulf Coast residents affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Such sites provide mechanisms to find and communicate with missing family members and friends, get news and information about disaster relief and resources, make donations, and apply for government benefits.

The extent of the Internet's role in the aftermath of Katrina and Rita is still unclear. But several disaster and technology experts say the Internet is a more powerful tool than anything else for communicating, sharing information and interacting during disasters. Government agencies, first responders, relief agencies, nonprofit groups and the public all reap benefits from Internet resources.

For example, a nonprofit community technology group based in Houston set up 200 computers in the Astrodome and sent hundreds of volunteers to help thousands of evacuees use the Internet to get relief information and communicate with family and friends through e-mail.

"We're seeing an increase [in the number of people looking for help online]. In fact, if anything, I have a feeling this time that we're starting to fall over each other [in that] there are too many ways to get information, too many possibilities, too many options as opposed to…one authorized place," said Claire Rubin, a Virginia-based emergency management and homeland security researcher and consultant.

Michael Brown, chief technology officer at Prepared Response, a Seattle-based technology company that develops and implements crisis management planning and response systems, said the use of e-mail, instant messaging services and the Internet during disaster response efforts has increased since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

The Internet allows multiple people to access a system simultaneously. "In addition, one of the huge values of the Internet is the way it presents information," said Brown, who is not related to former Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Michael Brown. "It's not just a scribbled piece of information. You can get data formatted in a way most [people] can understand, such as graphs or text, and get data that's archivable, and you can update that pretty rapidly. It amplifies the value of that information."

Post a poem or a prayer

No one has compiled a definitive list of hurricane-related Web sites or calculated the total number of visitors. But a number of sites, such as Craig's List sites in the Gulf Coast region, stand out because people have created links to them on other Web sites or passed the links around via e-mail.

David Stephenson, who teaches about technology and criminal justice at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and writes about homeland security in a Web log, said the KatrinaHelp wiki was more comprehensive than any government source, including FEMA.

One concern about wikis is that people could intentionally or accidentally post incorrect information, he said. But wiki users can quickly correct it. However, he gives failing marks to many government sites, including the Homeland Security Department's and FEMA's, because they provide only static content.

"I think the Webmaster for DHS should be fired," said Stephenson, a frequent critic of DHS' preparedness initiatives. "I don't think DHS gets [the Web]. They think of it as an alternative source of dispersing information but not even a priority one."

Neal Boyd, a Hammond, La., resident, created LATalk.org a week after Katrina struck to help Louisiana evacuees and others affected by the storm. His goal for LATalk is to help people find family, get information about unemployment benefits and locate resources, he said.

"I was going nuts," said Boyd, who works full-time as the Webmaster and design coordinator for a Louisiana Board of Regents program. "One of the goals of the Web site is to help them with their queries, post a thread, write a poem or say a public prayer. What I don't allow is partisan politics. It takes away from the site. It's really to share."

Boyd personally helped two people: a woman looking for her aunt and a man searching for his grandmother. Both posted messages seeking information about their missing relatives. Boyd searched the Internet, made calls, found the missing relatives and relayed the information back. That alone, he said, was worth creating the site.

Boyd owns the site, which is hosted by a friend in Texas. He paid about $200 for a license for a form script, but most of his investment was time, he said. He developed the site in a day at a Hammond coffee shop that still had power. His house did not have electricity for 10 days.

Using his state government connections, Boyd linked LATalk.org to the governor's hurricane Web site for a while. Boyd initially required users to register on the site, but he realized ease of use was more important and dropped that requirement. In all, he had 100 registered users and twice as many unregistered visitors. About 90 percent of the users who posted comments on the site were from the Gulf Coast region, he said, although people nationwide have visited the site.

Internet taken for granted

The Internet can also help create a sense of community among residents as they rebuild in the Gulf Coast region.

Kim Patrick Kobza, president and chief executive officer of Florida-based Neighborhood America, which builds Web-based systems that support public outreach and comment, said the Internet can assist recovery plans and subsequently rebuild whole communities.

"In general, it's something that we probably don't give enough currency," Kobza said, referring to using the Internet in that manner. "It's not planned, it's presumed. You would want to plan for it the same way you would plan for implementation and use of other recovery types of communication systems."

The company created a Web-based product that helps government officials manage public communications and multijurisdictional collaboration. It built the Florida Recovers Web site, which was sponsored by numerous government agencies, nonprofit groups and the private sector to help counties rebuild after several hurricanes devastated the state last year. The site offers resources and documents and records experiences not only for citizens but also for government officials, who can share data from previous disasters, he said.

Neighborhood America is also working on the Imagine New York project, which facilitates public participation in rebuilding the parts of downtown New York City affected by the 2001 terrorist attacks. In that project, the company helped collect more than 3,000 comments and 10,000 images. The site also collected and archived audio files from scores of public hearings and phone comments on the project.

The function of the Internet is to supplement, not replace, existing processes, Kobza said. Agencies cannot simply acquire technology. They must also plan the best uses of technology when hurricanes, blizzards, floods, earthquakes, forest fires and terrorism strike. They should have Internet-based systems ready to go whenever disaster strikes.

"We can't think like we've thought for the last 100 years," he said.

Memory maps and official wikis

Stephenson, whose blog is posted at www.stephensonstrategies.com, said that if authorities created a guidebook of tools in advance, they could better help citizens and first responders during crises.

Federal, state and local governments have to think out of the box. And the Web, by its nature, can eliminate the box. For example, organizations could build official wikis that allow first responders and authorities to contribute information, he said.

CompanyCommand.com, for example, lets military personnel share threaded discussions on issues such as improvised explosive devices. The site allows warfighters on the battlefield to share new information in a real-time environment. That could be a model for first responders, Stephenson said.

An application on Flickr.com lets people add information about specific locations on aerial maps. During disasters, government officials and the public could instantly share those photographs, Stephenson said.

"If you had a childhood home, you could tag that map with little anecdotes about the house as you remembered it, and over time, the house would have its own history," he said. "However, what occurred to me as the flooding was going on was that you could tag a roofline with: 'I think there's an elderly lady who might not have gotten out -- please check.'"

The Internet could be helpful to emergency workers who are responding to a disaster. Local authorities could establish a Web site that features lists of the type of equipment and personnel first responders from other areas should bring with them, Stephenson said.

"All those pieces can be obtained on the Internet in an on-demand fashion," Brown said. But he added that unless an area has electrical power, nothing will work -- not even the Internet.

Rubin, a visiting scholar at the George Washington University's Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management, said she doesn't think researchers have studied much about using the Internet during disasters. But she said there's a greater chance of fraud and error as more sites offer information.

"Disaster people use a term -- convergence," she said. "You get convergence of too many donated goods, which clogs up the roadway, too many self-deployed firemen. You may now have a convergence of too many freestyle bloggers and wiki types and whatever. So one of the issues would be: How do you sort out charlatans from the real, and how do you give primary attention to the ones who are authentic and credible?"

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