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Web Proves Its Capacity to Help in Time of Need

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.”

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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.

Floods also overtook the transmitter for WDSU, a New Orleans TV station. A borrowed one, powered by a diesel generator to reach a tower on higher ground, allowed the station to broadcast. But news director Anzio Williams said his target audience wasn’t the people who remained in New Orleans -- they had no electricity to power their television -- but evacuees and people across the world anxious about the Crescent City’s fate.

So the station’s broadcasts also stream over the Internet.

“We are still broadcasting in New Orleans, but who can see us here?” he shouted into his cellphone as he drove through a dry part of town. “People all over the country who had to move out of the city are watching us on computers.”

That people turn to their Web browsers during major news events is a fact of the Digital Age. Newspaper circulation and television viewership both surge too. But the Internet differs from those media because it’s interactive, making it almost as easy to contribute to news coverage as it is to consume it.

“Traditional journalism provides the view from the outside looking in, and citizen journalism provides the view from the inside looking out,” said Mitch Gelman, senior vice president and executive producer of CNN.com. “In order to tell the complete story, you need both points of view.”

And it gets easier every day.

The number of computers using high-speed Internet connections in the United States grew from less than 3 million in 1999 to nearly 38 million at the end of 2004, making online video and audio available to more people. Simple software has given rise to millions of personal Web pages and blogs. By one estimate, a new blog comes online every 7.4 seconds.

“For a long time [the Internet] was kind of an elite nerd club, if that’s not an oxymoron,” said John R. Levine, author of “The Internet for Dummies.”

The engineers who created the network had no “idea how deeply it would become embedded in the popular society,” Levine said. “If you had asked them 30 years ago if this is what they would like their network to be able to do, they would have said yes. But if you asked them whether they expected this, then no, they wouldn’t have thought it would become this ubiquitous so quickly.”

Or so vital to so many people.

Those in the direct path of the storm lost Internet access along with phone, gas and electrical service. But once evacuated, many went online. The Red Cross has begun establishing Internet kiosks at its 200 evacuation centers. Public libraries that weren’t destroyed or heavily damaged have extended hours for evacuees to access the Internet through public computers.

Jim Forrest, who is overseeing the Astrodome computer center, said the Katrina relief effort included the widest-ever spread of computers and Internet access to disaster victims. “Of course we’ve got more victims now, so the Web is the way to go,” he said.

Jill Gatsby, 38, an artist in Hollywood who sobbed as she watched TV footage of the devastation, said, “If I wasn’t pregnant, I would have been down there on the first day ripping people out of the water. I was sitting here helpless.”

Frustrated, she turned her personal website into a clearinghouse for information about Los Angeles-area places to donate clothing, food and other supplies. She said she received more than 350 calls in 24 hours after posting a message on Craigslist.

“Now I feel at least that I’m doing something,” she said. “The Internet is pretty amazing.”

Demand for online information about the storm’s aftermath has been overwhelming -- much as it was during the London subway bombings or the Southeast Asian tsunami. After each of those news events, online news executives noticed that traffic remained higher than before the headlines, meaning people keep coming back to get more-mundane news.

Neil Budde, general manager of Yahoo News, attributed traffic increases after the hurricane to the complex stories involving thousands of people across a vast region. “That’s a really tough story to tell on television because you’ve got such a narrow capability to get the story out.”

Many television outlets used the Internet in ways they never had before. MSNBC.com created one of the largest online, searchable lists to help people connect with missing friends and family. As of Friday, 170,000 people had posted entries in the “looking for” and “safe” lists, which had been viewed more than 7 million times.

A “Katrina blog,” written by reporters in the field, garnered more than 4,000 comments from visitors, many with offers of help. After an entry was posted about a baby who needed specialized infant formula, readers of the blog provided it.

Said MSNBC.com general manager Charlie Tillinghast: “It takes a crisis like this to turn something that has been mostly in the political space, with people trading opinions, into something that has been used for a humanitarian purpose.”

Times staff writers David Colker, James S. Granelli, Scott Martelle, Joseph Menn, Martin Miller and Tony Perry contributed to this report.


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