Sunday, September 18, 2005 blogs and forums help save lives after Katrina

“OJR: Did you ever consider the possibility that you wouldn't have a print newspaper?

Donley: No, it neveroccurredd to us, we never discussed it. The idea was to use the Web to give breaking information to people and then the full stories would be in the newspaper. When we heard this would be a Category 4 or 5, that had an effect on us, on the number of people we would keep around. Normally, I would take two people with me into the hurricane bunker but this time I just went in by myself. People really needed to get their families out. We had a smaller staff than we normally would.

The electricity went out very early on Monday morning [August 29] and it wasn't settled until 8 or 9 at night that there wouldn't be a paper out. But we wanted to put all the newspaper coverage of the hurricane online because of the massive number of evacuees who wouldn't be able to see the newspaper anyway. We didn't know ahead of time but put it up online for that purpose late in the day.

In the hurricane bunker we never lost electricity or Internet connectivity up until the time we evacuated. But we lost the library system, and [the newspaper editors] lost the ability to print stories to the XML depositories, they lost the ability to transfer photos. We started to put together crude transfer systems on the fly, but in the end we just started pasting the final print versions into the Weblog.

OJR: How did you make the decision to put literally all your print stories into the blog?

Donley: We have used a blog-style situation ever since Hurricane Georges for news updates and breaking news stuff, but never with the intention to run the print stories. They usually combine the tidbits into print stories.

We were running two blogs live. One was from the city desk and they were funneling news from their reporters. And I was running the NOLA View blog, first what we were experiencing in the newsroom and that morphed into reports from the police scanner. I'm used to listening to scanner traffic in one ear and taking notes on it, but this is something we'd never heard before. The only parallel was scanner tapes from the 9/11 emergency. It was that kind of stuff. I could actually hear phone calls patched through, and you could hear the water going up in someone's attic, and you could hear the cops crying, "I can't get to them, they're dropping off the roof one at a time."

Eventually people started sending requests for rescues. So that blog morphed from my little color thing to people reporting other people trapped and some of the agencies using it to rescue people. I have some remote producers monitoring that full-time and going through rescue requests.

OJR: I heard from a number of people posting on your blog that it helped save the lives of people they knew.

Networks, at least the uncentralized ones, just worked. Both the people and the protocols routed around the damage and, as a result lives were saved. FEMA, centered in Homeland Security, fell apart. In part, because the center tried to hold all authority… Al Ingram

Donley: Necessity is the mother of invention. We do know that this Lt. Gen. Honore who oversees the military operation, one of his aides who has a group of people who have been monitoring the forum continually and taking notes and sending out rescue missions based on that information. In fact, one time we had some server issues, and he wrote us frantically saying, "Get this up as soon as you can, people's lives depend on it. We've already saved a number of lives because of it."

OJR: I can't think of another online forum that's saved lives like that before.

Donley: It was weird because we couldn't figure out where these pleas were coming from. We'd get e-mails from Idaho, there's a guy at this address and he's in the upstairs bedroom of his place in New Orleans. And then we figured out that even in the poorest part of town, people have a cell phone. And it's a text-enabled cell phone. And they were sending out text messages to friends or family, and they were putting it in our forums or sending it in e-mails to us.

The cell service didn't work, but they could send text. They're saying now that the body counts won't be as bad as they thought, and I know at least some of that is that people figured out how to hack the system, to use this kludge to save people's lives.”

…Networks, at least the uncentralized ones, just worked. Both the people and the protocols routed around the damage and, as a result lives were saved. FEMA, centered in Homeland Security, fell apart. In part, because the center tried to hold all authority to the point of refusing to act when explicit total authority wasn't transferred from the governor to them in triplicate.

Food, medicine, even diesel fuel sent to supply a hospitals emergency generator was confiscated, not allowed to go through. Buses sent to evacuate desperate people were halted. Truckloads of supplies were blocked. It's not that the local authorities didn't make deadly mistakes and FEMA did. It's the nature of the mistakes, why they confiscated supplies, why they cut the sheriff's line, why they held up search and rescue volunteers, that must be examined.

Security was put ahead of human need in a natural catastrophe. Management swallowed emergency. I think Brown was the smallest part of the problem. What the agency was structured to do will turn out to be a lot more important.

This administrations theory of governance will be most important of all. Unless the press and congress blow this one too.

Unfortunately, that would be totally consistent. The real shame is that the outstanding coverage of the response to Hurricane Katrina is inconsistent.…
con·cept: blogs and forums help save lives after Katrina