Shame on FEMA

I suppose it's really just a little thing, a footnote in the context of the massive, horrific devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Thousands of people are dead or dying. Hundreds of thousands are homeless. Much of New Orleans is a toxic cesspool. Some smaller Louisiana and Mississippi towns are simply gone, wiped from the face of the earth. You have to get far, far down on the list of horrors to come to this one: The Federal Emergency Management Agency has set up a Web site for survivors of the disaster to apply for aid, but it works only if they're using Internet Explorer 6.

But trivial as that sounds, it matters right now -- a lot.

It matters because the dead are dead. The destroyed towns and homes are gone. But for the living, the refugees, top priority has to be putting their lives back together. And there are far too many of them to be helped one at a time by human beings on the other end of a telephone line.

Fortunately, there's also the World Wide Web. It doesn't require a warm body at the other end of the line. It's designed to handle an endless stream of users and handle them efficiently and in large numbers. And it works with old PCs, Macs, Linux machines, handheld computers, cell phones, even video games. It should be a godsend for people struggling to recover from the catastrophe.

So for those who have survived the destruction and are stranded in a community shelter or in the home of a relative, friend or generous stranger, there's got to be something especially bitter in going to disasteraid.fema.gov and reading this message: "In order to use this site, you must have JavaScript Enabled and Internet Explorer Version 6. Download it from Microsoft or call 1-800-621-FEMA (3362) to register."

No doubt most of the people who see that message would be perfectly happy to use IE 6 on the PCs they left behind when they had to evacuate. But that's not an option for them now. They're locked out if they're not running Windows and IE 6.

Ever wonder if your technical decisions matter? These hurricane survivors don't.

Ever think that cutting a corner that simplifies development but limits who can use your systems is no big deal? Maybe that's true if you're working in a corporate IT shop on a retail Web site or a business-to-business e-commerce application. Then the worst results of your corner-cutting might just be aggravated customers, lost revenue and a reputation for cluelessness.

But for hurricane survivors, the corner-cutting at FEMA is a kick in the throat while they're down. After everything they've been through, it's one more cheap shot when they can least afford it.

The worst part is, it's probably not intentional on the part of whoever built that FEMA Web site. Those developers likely weren't trying to lock anyone out or favor Microsoft. They probably just didn't think about the fact that people coming to a Web site named "disasteraid" might not have their choice of browsers.

Or maybe they did give it a moment's thought but decided that their own convenience mattered more than how usable their Web site would be and that using their favorite tools was more important than following standards.

And so a little pain saved by a few software developers results in lots of pain for thousands of disaster victims.

Ordinarily, I'd call that irresponsible, poor development practice, maybe even incompetent. That's when the cost would be measured in lost business.

But when this sort of foul-up locks out people in desperate need of help, it's not just irresponsible. It's unconscionable. It's shameful.

Sure, it's a little thing in the context of this huge, awful calamity.

It's IT's little part in making the enormity of Hurricane Katrina just a little bit worse.

Frank Hayes, Computerworld's senior news columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years. Contact him at frank_hayes@computerworld.com.

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