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Technology Responds to Hurricane Katrina

How high-tech companies and Web surfers are using technology to help people find victims of Hurricane Katrina and to assist public safety officials and rescue workers in communicating
September 2, 2005

According to Jim Buckmaster, CEO of Craigslist, their Lost and Found section typically has one or two posts a day. Now it’s seeing hundreds of them.

“On Tuesday [August 30], there were 712 posts,” Buckmaster says. “The traffic [Wednesday] was on pace to double that.” Even the site’s Missed Connections and Women Seeking Men sections – typically areas reserved for romance seekers – have turned into search-and-rescue repositories scattered with notes of condolences and support.

In fact, the entire Craigslist New Orleans site has become an eerie virtual facsimile of the missing-persons flyers that were found all over lower Manhattan after 9/11.

All across the Internet, blogs and websites such as Craigslist are assisting with mobilizing relief – and trying to make sense of the catastrophe unfolding in the Crescent City and along the entire Gulf Coast.

For instance, popular sites such as (which bills itself as “a directory of wonderful things”) have become sounding boards for tech-savvy people who are looking to donate cell phones, expertise, and cash for the Katrina relief effort.

Meanwhile, as citizens across the country – and around the world – figure out what they can do as individuals, technology companies are racing to put on the ground technologies that can assist in the dire need for better communications among rescue workers and public safety officials.

On CNN, Jeffrey Williams, a physician at Charity Hospital in New Orleans, addressed the hospital’s challenges – along with a lack of food, water, and power generation: “We’re not getting any information,” Williams told anchor Wolf Blitzer. “Our lack of communication is a real problem.”

Freedom4Wireless, a wireless company based in Lake Mary, FL, has sent a team of its workers in trailer trucks to the hurricane area. When they arrive on Friday, they will begin building “ad hoc wireless networks,” says Keith Money, chief operating officer for the company. The networks will provide rescue workers with voice-over-Internet protocol (VoIP)-based phone networks and police radio capabilities. In addition, the equipment is solar- and battery-powered, so it can provide communications where none exists now.

Motorola has mobilized 2,500 pieces of equipment, including radios, chargers, consoles – “a huge list,” says Adrienne Dimopoulos, a company spokesperson.

“We’ve deployed systems on wheels, trailers that have infrastructure, and a generator. We just deployed a 700 mhz system to the Louisiana state police. It arrived Wednesday morning,” Dimopoulos says. A second trailer with a 900 mhz communications system is going to Jackson, Mississippi.

One technology that Motorola is offering to the hurricane-ravaged region is Motobridge, an Internet-based system that distributes control on a network, so if one node goes down or loses power, the entire communications system won’t fail.

The company first deployed Motobridge in December 2004, and hopes to have 265 dispatch centers in public safety offices around the country by the end of the year.

Another technology that could help in a disaster like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is mesh networking (although it’s not clear that it’s been deployed in the Gulf Coast region yet). Unlike the failure of traditional communications systems, such as telephone networks, which are based on central nodes, mesh networking is a distributed technology, which means it can remain largely functional if individuals nodes are damaged.

Motorola put its mesh networking technology into place in Florida last year after Hurricane Charley. It was used to monitor staging areas that were vulnerable to looting. Rather than positioning a dozen police cruisers around a parking lot filled with food and water, public safety officials positioned mesh-network-connected video cameras around the lot. The cameras fed a video stream to a police crew in a single cruiser, thereby freeing up other officers for more pressing concerns.

“The city used the self-forming, self-healing aspects of mesh networking to pop up this video surveillance system,” says Rick Rotondo, director of marketing for Motorola’s mesh networking division. “It didn’t cost much. It was reusable. There was no permanent infrastructure involved.”

In the aftermath of a similar disaster, the tsunami that struck Southeast Asia in 2004, Intel quickly set up Wi-Max (wireless interoperability for microwave access), which increases the range of broadband from 150 feet (the Wi-Fi limit) up to 30 miles.

“We set up Wi-Max in Indonesia that covered the Banda Aceh,” says Amy Martin. “It allowed relief agencies to communicate and helped relief get there more quickly and more efficiently.”

There’s “great potential” for Wi-Max to assist in places like New Orleans, Martin says.

Clearly, such new technologies can make a huge difference in bringing information and communications to an area where there currently is none. What’s more, wireless and Internet technologies can do so without the need for developing huge new projects on the ground – just the kind of infrastructure that’s so vulnerable.

At the same time, citizens out of the danger zone can use the Internet to show support, raise money, and reach out to loved ones who are lost.

“It’s striking,” says Craigslist’s Buckmaster, “the poignancy of people looking to provide temporary housing, this outpouring of generosity, during this horrific devastating natural disaster.”

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