Amidst scenes of chaos in New Orleans and devastation across Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, an army of Internet bloggers – as well as some of the most sophisticated military equipment used in the Iraq war – have been marshaled to aid the recovery effort.
With cell phone towers damaged and most land line telephones out of commission, local websites, run by individuals or businesses that still have power, have become one of the major lines of communication from many storm-stricken areas. E-mail and local blogs often provided news of real time conditions during the storm and now are assisting survivors with offers of material assistance, matching those without shelter to those offering to open their homes, and maintaining contact lists to reunite separated families.
Sites like craigslist.org, an online community that began in the Bay Area but spread to cities across the U.S., has emerged as a key site for those seeking missing friends and family.
“Ellis Anderson of Bay St. Louis is OK!!!” reads one post. “A friend called her parents today who told her she’d ridden out the storm in her house in BSL and survived!”
FullCircle.net and FindKatrina.net are both impromptu private efforts by Web users to help reunite those in the storm area. One web designer has even included links to Google’s new mapping function to add an element of geography to online information sharing and damage assessment.
Craigslist has also become a means of connecting those in need with those who wish to help in a more personal way, notes Wired News.
“The wonderful people of the art forum have banded together to send me care packages, donations and gift certificates since losing my house in New Orleans,” wrote one aid recipient who signed her post as “Shanna, formerly of New Orleans.” “I have nothing left except for what fit into a Dodge Neon, and these strangers have opened their hearts to me.”
The Internet has also been an avenue for those isolated by the storm to receive news – and to give feedback. One unhappy Louisianan, Christopher Holton, wrote WorldNetDaily on Friday:
I write this on my Blackberry handheld in my home in Mandeville, Louisiana just north of Lake Ponchartrain.
Despite the fact that we have no utilities, word has trickled into this area that House Speaker Dennis Hastert has questioned whether the federal government should spend the money to rebuild New Orleans.
The reaction here is unanimous. Hastert is out of line and for him to make those comments at this point in time shows incredibly poor leadership. I am a registered Republican. I donate to the RNC. I donate to the Republican National Congressional Committee. I donate to the Republican National Senatorial Committee.
I am ashamed to be in the same political party as Dennis Hastert.
The success of the Internet in the storm zone is somewhat surprising, given the devastation to the area’s electrical network. Internet usage in Mississippi was reported at just 10 percent of normal traffic while, in New Orleans, traffic levels were below what could be measured.
Nationwide, however, Katrina-related traffic boomed online. Visits to the Red Cross website following the storm rivaled those seen following December’s tsunami. The number of visitors to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s web site jumped 402 percent to 3.2 million visitors a week after the hurricane hit from 641,000 the Monday preceding the hurricane, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.
If Katrina is proving to be the Internet hurricane, it may also be the domestic disaster that makes some of the high-tech military equipment used in Iraq and Afghanistan a regular part of the U.S. emergency-rescue arsenal.
Five Silver Fox “unmanned aerial vehicles,” or UAVs, equipped with thermal imaging technology to detect the body heat of storm survivors, are being deployed in New Orleans. Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Curt Weldon told reporters in Baton Rouge that he had bypassed government bureaucracy to obtain the drones from a private company for use in the ongoing search for survivors.
“With thermal imaging capability … you can actually see into the buildings and see the body image of a person still alive,” Weldon, vice chairman of the House Armed Services and Homeland Security Committees, said. “It could help assess whether there are people trapped alive in attics or upper floors. Once you’ve got them pinpointed you can send rescue teams in.”
The 5-foot-long drone is operated by laptop computer.
American Technology has donated four ‘sonic lasers’ – devices that will permit a Marine military police unit deployed on the Gulf Coast to communicate audibly over distances up to a mile.
“We are donating the use of one of our most powerful prototypes, LTPMS-2, for use in Mississippi as soon as possible, because the governor of that state said that the biggest problem they have right now is the fact that they have no communications infrastructure to get information or instructions out to people,” a spokesman for the Costa Mesa, California-based company said. “They can very easily put this on a truck and send sound out for a minimum of at least a mile in either direction.”
“You don’t appreciate how powerful this stuff is until you stand a mile away and can’t see the transmitter – but can hear every word in a Queen song,” said a Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department commander who recently attended a demonstration of the technology. “At a quarter mile, it sounds as clear as a car radio; at a half a mile, you have to raise your voice to talk to the guy next to you; at three quarters of a mile, laborers raking up leaves were putting in music requests.”
The sonic devices are also used for crowd control, emitting an excruciating, but non-lethal, sound to those close-by. The U.S. Navy is currently using 60 such devices in Iraq. With most of the angry crowds stranded at the Superdome and Convention Center now transferred to other locations, the sonic speakers are unlikely to be used for this purpose.