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In the Face of Catastrophe, Sites Offer Helping Hands

By Leslie Walker
Sunday, September 4, 2005

The Internet offers a ton of ad hoc resources -- along with many official relief sites and an annoying number of bogus ones -- for people who want to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

For example, such major commercial sites as Amazon.com, eBay and Yahoo (plus the iTunes Music Store) posted the equivalent of tin cups on their home pages, inviting visitors to donate to the American Red Cross (http://www.redcross.org/), the agency leading the relief effort.

Many bloggers, meanwhile, declared Friday a storm relief day and linked to as many online relief sites as they could find.

And less-public citizens did their bit, too. Katrina Blankenship, a Web designer in Powhatan, Va., turned her professional site, Katrina.com, into a hurricane relief directory Monday after thousands of strangers started going there in search of updates. Blankenship said she spurned repeated offers to buy her Internet address, including one from a New Yorker who offered to drive to her house, west of Richmond, and give her $500,000 on the spot for her domain name.

"It is not for sale," Blankenship said. She spent much of Friday on the phone with relief workers, trying to figure out what to tell people who kept e-mailing and calling her to say they had lined up caravans of personal vehicles and wanted to head south to help.

A ton of new Web resources popped up for folks trying to find missing loved ones, including forums at the site of the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper (http://www.nola.com/) . More official missing-person registries are maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard (http://homeport.uscg.mil/) and the National Next of Kin Registry (http://www.pleasenotifyme.org/). Thousands of people also turned to Craigslist, a classified-ads site that quickly created special Katrina bulletin boards for missing people, housing assistance and volunteer opportunities (http://neworleans.craigslist.org/).

The activist group MoveOn.org fashioned an online clearinghouse for housing at http://www.hurricanehousing.org/.

Consumer groups, meanwhile, warned that bogus sites were springing up and attempting to exploit public concern for the victims. They advised people to make donations only to charities they know, or at least check out any relief group first at clearinghouses such as Charity Navigator (http://www.charitynavigator.org/).

Besides the Red Cross, legitimate groups collecting donations for the victims of Katrina included Catholic Charities (http://www.catholiccharitiesusa.org/), the Salvation Army (http://www.salvationarmyusa.org/) and AmeriCares (http://www.americares.org/). A list of most major relief agencies seeking donations is available at Network for Good (http://www.networkforgood.org/).

Anyone wanting to organize a volunteer effort locally can use the popular Web meeting service Meetup, which waived all of its regular fees for those providing hurricane relief: http://hurricane.meetup.com/.

For the most part, sites maintained by governments lagged behind those published by volunteer and news outfits, but the official sites did offer some useful resources. The beleaguered Federal Emergency Management Agency, for example, had a two-day-old press release at the top of its home page early Friday (http://www.fema.gov/); down that page, it ran a long list of relief agencies needing donations and offered instructions on how businesses could help.

Considering how hard New Orleans got clobbered and the depth of the ensuing anarchy, it's no surprise that the city's official site (http://www.cityofno.com/) displayed outdated hurricane information Friday. But Louisiana's homeland-security Web site offered loads of useful phone numbers for hurricane assistance (http://www.ohsep.louisiana.gov/).

Perhaps the best one-stop shop for Katrina resources online was the guide created by Yahoo (news.yahoo.com/fc/World/Hurricanes_and_Tropical_Storms). All the major news sites also published Katrina guides, though most were shorter.

Traffic soared to Internet news sites, Nielsen-NetRatings reported. On Monday, CNN.com drew 6.9 million visitors, up 44 percent from the previous Monday, while Advance Internet, which runs Nola.com, drew 1.4 million visitors Monday, up 170 percent from the previous week. Traffic rose steadily at RedCross.org, too, with 1.1 million people visiting it Wednesday, up from only 390,000 the day before.

E-mail Leslie Walker atwalkerl@washpost.com.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company