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KATRINA'S AFTERMATH

Web Proves Its Capacity to Help in Time of Need

September 10, 2005|Chris Gaither and Matea Gold | Times Staff Writers

Thirty years after the Internet was created as a communications system of last resort, the network fulfilled its mission during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina -- but in ways more sweeping than its founders could have imagined.

It reunited families and connected them with shelter. It turned amateur photographers into chroniclers of history and ordinary people into pundits. It allowed television stations to keep broadcasting and newspapers to keep publishing. It relayed heartbreaking tales of loss and intimate moments of triumph.

In the process, the Internet cemented itself further into the American mainstream, demonstrating the flexibility that its designers envisioned and a vibrancy they did not.

"The Web has become the media of public service, of communication, of original content," said Jeffrey Cole, director of the USC Annenberg School for Communication's Center for the Digital Future. "I think this will be viewed as the first event that demonstrates what the Web has become in terms of being transformational in people's lives."

The Net was designed as a decentralized military network that could keep commanders in contact even if most of the nation's infrastructure was wiped out in a nuclear war. But the commercial and social applications of the last 10 years have outstripped that original vision.

Indeed, even as government agencies struggled to respond to Katrina, millions of regular people mobilized themselves online.

The postings at online bulletin board Craigslist have been jammed with offers of shelter from across the country. More than half of the $503 million in donations that have poured into the American Red Cross have been made online. In the nearly two weeks since Katrina came ashore, Yahoo News posted the four busiest days in its history.

In Houston, a room in the Astrodome that formerly held baseball souvenirs is now a makeshift computer lab, where some victims of the hurricane saw their first photos of the devastation. They could also contact relatives, find housing and start filling out forms for government assistance.

"I lost everything: no ID, no Social Security. Everything," said 41-year-old New Orleans resident Lule Youngblood, now living at the Astrodome. "But this nice young man showed me how to use this computer to try to get help. I never thought that I would be using something like this."

The Internet has played a larger and larger role in every major news event of the last 10 years. During most, though, it served as little more than a digital wire service or TV network that allowed news junkies to get a quick fix. In the aftermath of Katrina, use of the Internet is more vital and varied than ever.

Conscious of that, traditional broadcast and cable news outlets have been beefing up their online offerings, hoping to keep viewers tuned in to their content, no matter where it is located. That strategy paid off after the hurricane, as traffic on ABCNews.com, CBS.com, CNN.com, FoxNews.com and MSNBC.com rose to record levels.

At MSNBC.com, for instance, visitors played a total of nearly 50 million video clips in the week after the storm -- three times more than the previous record, set in the week after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Many media and Internet companies created space reserved for "citizen journalists" to post their own photos and accounts of the disaster, as well as comment on others' contributions. CNN received more than 30,000 personal accounts and 1,500 videos or photos.

"The kids are picking up on the stress in the house from everyone, but how do you tell your children that they can't go home because it's a possibility we don't have a home?" said one woman who gave her name as Michele M. from Slidell, La., who posted blog entries on FoxNews.com throughout the week. "There are no more toys, no more swing set, and I don't know when they will see daddy again."

Said AOL Vice President Lewis D'Vorkin: "Can't do it in TV, can't do it in newspapers. That personal involvement is what the whole online news space is all about."

Without the Internet, news outlets in areas hard hit by the storm wouldn't have been able to reach anyone.

Journalists at the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper fled their offices shortly after the hurricane struck. They relocated to Baton Rouge, La., about 75 miles away, and published electronic-only editions for three days after the storm. Hundreds of thousands of people visited the website, Nola.com, and viewed more than 72 million pages, according to the Southern Newspaper Publishers Assn. The newspaper has since begun publishing on borrowed printing presses, but reporters continue to post breaking-news updates online.

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