The devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina has galvanised both grassroots users and internet heavyweights such as Google into action.
GoogleEarth has had possibly the most vital week of its short existence in providing photographs of the affected regions that can be accessed by both rescue workers and those needing to see if their homes are still there. The New York Times tells just one of many stories that are emerging:
“I hope someone can help,” someone using the name ZuluOne wrote to an online bulletin board. “I’m trying to get a current overlay for the area around 2203 Curcor Court in Gulfport, Miss.”
Mr. Sprague knew that ‘current overlay’ meant a bird’s eye view. And an altruistic impulse combined with an urge to play with a new technology propelled him into action. Using his PC, he superimposed a freshly available posthurricane aerial photograph over a prehurricane image of the same neighborhood. After 15 minutes, he had an answer.
“Actually, it looks like your house looks pretty good,” Mr Sprague told ZuluOne by email. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t look so good for some of your neighbours. Best of luck to you and your family.”
Zulu One posted for help on a GoogleEarth bulletin board. Many American refugees are using GoogleEarth because it enables users to zoom in on any address for an aerial view drawn from a database of satellite photos. As soon as Katrina struck, the Google Earth team along with grass roots users such as Mr Sprague were working on completing a database of the area and the damage wrought and posting them a Google Earth bulletin board.
Most of the images originated with the Remote Sensing Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which has been posting them to its website since Wednesday.
Taking their lead from the online volunteers, Google, NASA and Carnegie Mellon University had by Saturday night made the effort more formal, incorporating nearly 4,000 post hurricane images into the GoogleEarth database for public use. According to John Hanke, a general manager in charge of the Google Earth service, “It was 100 percent a reaction to what
they (the grassroots users) were doing. They knew about the NOAA data before Google did.”
In a related grassroots online collaboration, at www.scipionus.com, people are plastering a Google street map with electronic pushpins marked with information such as ‘casino boats destroyed’ and ‘minor wind damage’. The NOAA images are also being used officially – helping the Army Corps of Engineers to assess levee damage and to determine major shoreline changes as well as damage assessment.
Other tech companies have also been quick to respond. Freedom4Wireless, a wireless company based in Lake Mary, FL, has sent a team of workers in trailer trucks to the hurricane area. When they arrive they plan to build ‘ad hoc wireless networks’ that will provide rescue workers with VoIP phone networks and police radio capabilities. In addition, the equipment is solar and battery powered, so it can provide communications where none exist. Such moves will be crucial not only in the relief effort but in rebuilding the infrastructure of the affected areas.
Bulletin boards have lit up with people searching for loved ones or offering help. According to Jim Buckmaster, CEO of community site Craigslist, their lost and found section typically receives one or two posts a day. Now it is receiving hundreds as people use the site to search for loved ones lost in the hurricane. Even the Missed Connections and Women Seeking Men sections – typically for those seeking romance – have become filled with notes of condolence and support. Buckmaster says, “It’s striking, the poignancy of people looking to provide temporary housing, this outpouring of generosity, during this horrific devastating natural disaster.”
Even popular blogs have used their huge readership to support the effort. Gofugyourself took a break from dissing celebrities to post a list of organisations helping in the relief effort and numbers to turn to that was more comprehensive than that on CNN.
The Internet has also supported the growing criticism of George Bush’s administration and the tardiness of the official response to the disaster. Political blogs have been helpfully providing online reruns of key televisual moments when the authorities had to face down the pure anger of the people on the ground.
The rolling news sites are finding rich pickings in quotes from New Orleans Mayor Nagin’s condemnation of the situation, “They are spinning and people are dying.” But political blogs like crooksandliars and wonkette have been providing full transcripts and quicktime video clips of key moments that will haunt the Bush adminstration until well after the clean up operation. Included are the moment when CNN anchor Anderson Cooper berated congresswoman Mary Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana and Kanye West’s unteleprompted and heartfelt announcement that ‘George Bush doesn’t care about black people’. Even if NBC managed to cut short West’s outburst, it can now be rerun for billions on the web – helping it become one of the defining statements of the tragedy.
The Cooper/Landrieu exchange is copied below.
COOPER: Does the federal government bear responsibility for what is happening now? Should they apologize for what is happening now?
LANDRIEU: Anderson, there will be plenty of time to discuss all of those issues, about why, and how, and what, and if. … Let me just say a few things. Thank President Clinton and former President Bush for their strong statements of support and comfort today. … I want to thank Senator Frist and Senator Reid for their extraordinary efforts.
Anderson, tonight, I don’t know if you’ve heard — maybe you all have announced it — but Congress is going to an unprecedented session to pass a $10 billion supplemental bill tonight to keep FEMA and the Red Cross up and operating.
COOPER: … I haven’t heard that, because, for the last four days, I’ve been seeing dead bodies in the streets here in Mississippi. And to listen to politicians thanking each other and complimenting each other, you know, I got to tell you, there are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated.
And when they hear politicians slap — you know, thanking one another, it just, you know, it kind of cuts them the wrong way right now. Because literally there was a body on the streets of this town yesterday being eaten by rats, because this woman had been laying in the street for 48 hours. And there’s not enough facilities to take her up.
Do you get the anger that is out here?