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IT Pros Aid in Search for Katrina Victims

Nonprofit groups, individual volunteers deploy technology to find the missing

September 19, 2005 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Technology professionals at nonprofit groups and individual volunteers are playing key roles in the effort to locate missing victims of Hurricane Katrina and reunite families that were separated as a result of the storm.
For example, IT staffers at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) are scrambling to keep up with a large increase in network traffic that began after the center was asked on Sept. 4 by the U.S. Department of Justice to help find storm victims. The Alexandria, Va.-based nonprofit organization usually serves as a clearinghouse for information on missing and exploited children. But because of Katrina, it has been pressed into service to try to locate adults as well.
The NCMEC set up a Katrina Missing Persons Hotline on Sept. 5, and one week later, it had received more than 14,800 calls related to the hurricane and was getting 20 million visitors per day to its Web site at www.missingkids.com -- about 20 times the usual volume.
"The amount of calls we've been getting and the amount of data that we're collecting has just been massive," said IT director Steven Gelfound. "We're seeing an increase of 240 times the normal [network] throughput we use."
To help meet the increased workload, the NCMEC has pressed back into service several old Web servers that had been retired. Meanwhile, a majority of the group's 19 IT staffers have been putting in 17-hour days monitoring network bandwidth, tracking changes to databases and ensuring that key systems are available, Gelfound said.
The NCMEC has also set up a 40-person call center that's equipped with voice-over-IP and wireless networking technologies to handle calls about missing people. In addition, it has sent IT employees and other staffers to various relocation centers for Katrina survivors to help transfer digital photographs and other data back to headquarters, Gelfound said. He added that the group is working to digitally enhance images of bodies recovered in the disaster zone to aid in identifying the dead.
Another organization that's involved in the search for hurricane survivors is Technology For All, a Houston-based nonprofit that set up a computer center at the Astrodome to help evacuees who were sent there register themselves as survivors and search for missing relatives and friends.
SBC Communications Inc. provided Internet connectivity for the group via 40 DSL lines. Technology For All deployed about 140 desktop PCs at the Astrodome and two other major relocation centers in Houston, plus 150 Internet access devices provided by Advanced Micro Devices Inc., said Will Reed, the group's president. It also installed a wireless network within the Astrodome so volunteers could walk around the stadium and input data about evacuees via handheld devices, Reed added.

Tiara Stevenson and Monshanda Wells use the Internet to look for family members at a shelter in Fort Worth, Texas.
Tiara Stevenson and Monshanda Wells use the Internet to look for family members at a shelter in Fort Worth, Texas.


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