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Twitter 'tweets' connect Gustav holdouts

September 01, 2008|James Janega | Chicago Tribune

NEW ORLEANS — The fearful weather reports about Hurricane Gustav did not persuade Sheila Moragas to leave Old Jefferson, a suburb just west of New Orleans. It was the 38-year-old mother's dwindling ranks of friends on the micro-blogging network Twitter.

One by one, Twitterers with nicknames such as "HumidCity," "DomesticKitty" and "NOLADawn" left south Louisiana, live-blogging the building drama through text messages on their laptops, home computers and cellphones.

At noon Sunday, Moragas, known as "NOLAnotes" on Twitter, decided to abandon the New Orleans area in advance of a hurricane for the second time in three years.

Across a largely empty New Orleans, bloggers and online social networkers struggled with the question of whether they should leave or stay and ride out the storm while communicating -- in real time -- with friends and the world at large. Hundreds of new viewers signed on to Twitter to join the conversation.

"Look at this little thing," said Karen Gadbois, 53, a New Orleans blogger, referring to Twitter. "You can jump on it and jump off it. It's not a lifetime commitment. It's very useful."

Bloggers said the use of online networks to track the storm and help others was fueled by new technology as well as lingering frustration over the response to Hurricane Katrina three years ago.

Kali Akuno, an education and training coordinator with the U.S. Human Rights Network, was part of a group along the Gulf Coast reaching out to African American bloggers to help hundreds of people displaced as they evacuated ahead of Hurricane Gustav.

Online followers as far away as Oregon, Washington and Rhode Island extended offers of hospitality, Akuno said. The group had already placed 150 people and was looking to find shelter for 200 more.

"People are definitely responding," Akuno said. "The main thing we learned from three years ago was the importance of staying in contact with each other."

If nothing else, the contact has provided an emotional touchstone for a population in exodus.

"Safely in Bossier," twittered Matt Langford of Lafayette, La., known as Matt425. "Now we wait."

Not everyone fled.

Mark Mayhew, 45, decided to ride out Hurricane Gustav in his third-floor cubbyhole on Bourbon Street. He has armed himself with canned tuna, corn flakes, beer and an IBM Think Pad covered in cigarette ashes.

Many communicating by wireless Internet and mobile phone said they had no idea what would happen when the hurricane knocks out cell towers. Unlike amateur radio operators in past disasters, these communicators rely on fragile infrastructure.

Mayhew says he has met few people on his street since moving to town six weeks after Katrina. "Since the evacuation, I've met all of them," he said. " 'Are you going to stay or are you going to go? Because if you're staying, we need to talk.' "

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jjanega@tribune.com

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