What is unfolding right now throughout the US gulf state region is the largest disaster this country has seen in contemporary history.
Millions of residents have been displaced, countless dead or injured, incalculable property damage.
Those who got out safely don't know when they can return, what they'll return to, or what they'll do next. NOLA friends I've spoken to who sought shelter in nearby towns say that's the hardest part -- not knowing anything.
There is little functioning communications; gas, power, water, and other basic systems are also non functional throughout much of the region. The most basic services that hold urban societies together -- from banking to hospitals to law enforcement -- are in disarray.
A number of engineers and tech-minded types have written in to BB to ask how they can help with technical expertise. Some have unsuccessfully attempted to contact groups like the Red Cross and Salvation Army, both of which are overwhelmed.
Reader Ignatz Sol is among them:
I know that you're not a volunteer organization, but maybe you can help direct me. I'm trying to find an organization who needs people on the ground in any of the affected areas. I live in Atlanta, but can go directly to any location. I can't get through to the Red Cross or Salvation Army and some other aid groups I have talked to will be helping after rescue is over. I'm a mechanical engineer with tools and I know that someone must need people there to help now. Can you help me? (flyingrobot at gmail.com)
Anyone have ideas on exactly how individuals who wish to -- people with experience repairing, maintaining, building communications systems, for instance -- can donate expertise?
Some companies are sorting out ways to assist, via public agencies and aid groups. Larry Williamson says:
My employer (F4W) has been called upon to provide a satellite uplink with voip capabilities in the vacinity of New Orleans (we are still waiting on exact deployment instructions). We utilize network hardware from various vendors and have a suite of mesh networking enabled software and hardware setups, including video surveillance and incident communication tools. We provided relief to the authorities during the aftermath of hurricane Charley ( Link ) and now we are going to lend a helping hand with that of Katrina.
It would sure be great if those of us whose lives weren't shot to hell by the disaster could coordinate ways of pooling tech knowledge resources to assist. I'll update this post as I can, as suggestions
Reader comment: Erik V. Olson says,
People want to help. That's good. The problem is they often can, but they think they can. And, in the end, all they really do is get in the way.
The single best thing Joe Geek can do is give cash. Not stuff, cash. Cash is portable, fast, and useful. Everything else has problems -- even if it is something they really and truly need, because it isn't there, and people and resources are needed to get it there.
The canonical example: Bottled water. Something otherwise useless that is critical in this sort of emergency. So you give a few flats to the ARC. Well, you bought them at retail, and now, the ARC has to put them on a truck (which costs money) and ship them down there (which cost money, and time.)
Let's say you give them $20 instead. The ARC notes that they need water. So, they call a bottler in a city close to, but not affected by, the storm. They get wholesale or cost prices, as opposed to retail. For the same amount of money, they get far more water, far closer to where they need to be. In six hours, you're delivering your flats to the local ARC office. In six hours with cash, they're handing water to people who desperately need it.
Finally, of course, if what they really need is food, your flats of water aren't helpful, but your cash is. So, the lesson:
1) Give cash. That's the best thing you can do from your home.
2) Stay the hell away from New Orleans. Seriously. They're ordering everyone out, that includes you. Do not go.
3) If you are trained to do rescue work, they have almost certainly called you by now. If not, check in with your local org -- records and such get lost, and they may have missed you.
4) If you really insist, go to your *local* American Red Cross office and talk to them. If, in fact, they do need a skill you have, they'll put you with the people you need to know, and start the wheels moving. The single biggest thing the ARC does in disasters is routing solutions to problems.
5) If you have supplies, not cash, you can talk to the local office, but realize that the cost of shipping your supplies may make them worse off then just buying them closer. If you have supplies *and* shipping -- and we're talking trucks, not FedEx, -- then call the local ARC, and talk to them, and if they need what they have, they'll put you in touch with the people who need it, who can arrange how to get it to them.
In general, when they need something, they need lots of it, either in one place or put into one place so they can easily distribute at need. One satellite phone isn't that helpful, esp. if they have to figure out how to make it work. A thousand phones, ready to go, however, is.
6) If they really need what you have to offer, and you are one of the few who can provided it, they've probably called you by now.
7) If you want to help in the future, start working with rescue orgs now. If you haven't been trained in general rescue procedures, your not nearly as helpful. Think of it as backups -- you can't help New Orleans now, but there will be other bad days, and if you've done the classwork and drills, and kept in touch, then you will be one of the people they need -- and they'll call you when they need you. It may not be as elegant as network support -- but right now, they don't care about TCP/IP. They care about getting people out of the floodwaters, and plugging the holes in the levees.
: Brenda VonAhsen says,
As this WaPo story suggests, FEMA is no longer in the natural disaster business. And while I've heard reports on the MSM about a government "response" that appears to be mostly related to search and rescue. I think it will be important to watch and see if there is any response from FEMA beyond rescuing survivors. Questions to ask: Are only state and private resources involved in rescue and later, in cleanup and rebuilding? All I hear is talk about making refief funds available. When we had flooding in Fargo/Grand Forks a few years ago, FEMA set up trailers for those made homeless from the floods. To evacuate thousands of people why weren't rail lines used before Katrina hit? Could they be used to transport survivors to those now empty military bases in the south? They'd make excellent refugee camps. Where are the military helicopters? Perhaps I missed seeing them on TV. Surely not every single one is in Iraq? What exactly are the parameters that FEMA operates under now? In the future, what can we can expect in the way of help from the government? Are the states on they're own now when it comes to natural disasters? Why?
NPR has a list of organizations that need funds and volunteers for hurricane relief. I'd also recommend checking VolunteerMatch if a volunteer has a specific location in mind they want to help.
: Bala Pitchandi says,
Members of the TsunamiHelp blog & wiki and other noble people around the world have assembled to put together the KatrinaHelp Wiki where we are gathering information about the aid agencies, helpline numbers and disaster related information. More importantly, people are pouring us with information about how they can help. We also have received requests from people who need help.
This site might be what you were looking for in terms of tech pros. Some sites in the sidebar to the right are looking for nerds to help get them off the ground for Katrina, and the main site is taking donations as well.
: Angus says,
Craigslist seems to be playing a very important role as information clearinghouse, connecting the missing with the searching, and it becomes more valuable the more people who are made aware of it.
[My school,] Georgia Tech, is hosting many refugees from Tulane. We've got the Student Center packed with students and from what I was able to glean, we're giving them food coupons to use on campus. Students are rising and beginning to work on fundraisers and other ways to help them.
The school president sent out an email about it saying that we'd be hosting them until they contacted their family and figured out when and how they could get home. He also noted some of them may be here for a while considering international travel and such.
I wish I could go and offer manual labor or something but I know for now that's not possible until the situations calm down.
: Susie Bright
I live in Santa Cruz, which went thru the bad earthquake in 89. People here HATE the Red Cross, they scoff at them, because there were so many scandals and corruptions involved with their "efforts." It's like the whole county hates their guts. There's a great desire to help an organizaiton with integrity, and I wonder if you can figure out who that is.
: Charlie Lindahl says,
This page directs people to UU (Unitarian Universalist) churches in the affected areas. Here's the list for Lousiana. Specific help is being asked for, such as food & water donations, and also for workers to help in the cleanup efforts. The Baton Rouge church site is one example: Link. In general, in answer to the question "how do I find out how to help?" I recommend surfing for church-related resources (not limited just to UU).
: Arun says,
For the most part what's needed right now is not tech help, but raw labor.
Anyone wanting to help out can just show up at the Red Cross here or at [Louisiana State University]'s Pete Maravich center [in Baton Rouge] and they'll be put to work. Here's a link from the local newspaper's website.
: Rich Kulawiec says,
It seems that everyone currently in the New Orleans Superdome plus many others are going to be moved to the Astrodome...estimates range from 10K to 30K people, with a possible stay of "months" mentioned. (The Astrodome's scheduled is being cleared through December.)
Communications are going to be a serious issue for these refugees; for example, even those that have their cell phones probably don't have their chargers. And in a month, when their bill goes to their still-underwater house and isn't paid, their service will be cut off.
Suggestion: we the geeks put together and deploy the world's largest cybercafe ...in the Astrodome. Granted, Internet access isn't a panacea, but it at least would provide a way for these people to communicate.
What's needed: (a) permission from someone in a position to grant permission (b) space+power (c) tables (d) chairs (e) lots and lots of PCs and Macs (f) at least one ISP that provision a pipe into there (g) net infrastructure: routers, cabling, etc. (h) sufficient geek labor to build it. My guess is that (a) might be the most difficult to come up with. So now what?
Responding to a comment about military helicopters. I'm currently at Naval Station Ingleside, in South Texas. Over the weekend the amphibious assault ship, USS Bataan, was in route to our base for a port call. Instead, they were diverted to ride out Katrina in the gulf, standing by for possible relief efforts. Early Monday morning as Katrina was hitting, HM-15, a mine-countermeasures helicopter Squadron from Naval Air Station, Corpus Christi, flew personnel and relief supplies out the Bataan and immediately started assisting in rescue operations. Currently there are 3 other large ships from the east coast en route to the Gulf area for relief operations. They may not be on television, but the Navy is actively involved.
watch out for Katrina aid scam websites.
Katrina aid idea: create cybercafe/free voip phone center at Astrodome?