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Blogs Provide Storm Evacuees With Neighborhood-Specific News

By Yuki Noguchi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 7, 2005

As the world's news media show the big picture of the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina, some Web sites are finding ways to provide specific information to those hungry for details about their homes and local landmarks.

Brian Oberkirch's Web log ( http://slidell.weblogswork.com ) has become such an outlet, filled with dispatches and photos from people who ventured back into Slidell, a community four miles from the Louisiana coast he and thousands of others evacuated before Katrina blew through.

"I was able to get to my apt at the Anchorage Sat 09/03/05," said one message posted yesterday. "Came in thru Eden Isles off Hwy 11 -- the beautiful white anchor at entrance is covered in about 7 ft of debris and there is only a one-lane path to enter/exit until over the little bridge."

Evacuees who didn't have Internet or phone access just after the Aug. 29 hurricane are slowly regaining the ability to check in on the familiar places they left behind. They report on what happened to the local school, grocery store, church or neighbor's home. Some online dispatches include digital photos from the scene, and some feature maps superimposed on recent aerial photos of the area, such as those available on Google Earth. The Internet continues to teem with pleas for information about missing children, family members and friends.

"People got scattered and are using it as a virtual rally point," Ernest Svenson, a New Orleans lawyer who evacuated to Houston with his family after the storm, said of the blog he started three years ago ( http://www.ernietheattorney.net ). He's received trickles of e-mails from friends and co-workers who've been able to survey their neighborhoods and has posted them.

Initially, with no access to phone or Internet service, Svenson sent text messages to a friend in Florida who posted them on the site. The availability of the Internet on the day of the storm and just afterward plummeted, according to ComScore Networks, a company that tracks Internet traffic. Online usage in New Orleans dropped by 80 percent the day of the storm and 90 percent the day after. Similarly, in the Biloxi-Gulfport area of Mississippi, Internet traffic fell by more than 75 percent on Aug. 29 and below reportable levels the following day.

On Monday, with limited access to the Internet, Svenson posted parts of an e-mail from a lawyer friend who'd gone back to New Orleans: "The flooding starts about a block past Feret to Claiborne. Down at Napoleon it starts at Pascale's M. I drove in and drove down st. charles all the way to Poydras. The D-Day Museum, Ogden Center, CAC -- are all basically unscathed. There's flooding every where else."

That prompted a plea for more information: "I am not clear about where exactly you said the flooding starts on Napoleon Ave. At Freret, or after if you are headed down to Claiborne? I ask because my boyfriend and I live in a house right at the corner of Freret on Napoleon, on the downtown side (on the right if you are headed up toward Claiborne). We are extremely frustrated that we cannot find any info on the state of our home."

The Sun Herald newspaper in Biloxi, Miss., allowed Internet users to "post damage reports" on its Web site, where one visitor asked, "Is the Father Ryan House B&B still standing? I looked at the aerial photos and really can't tell," and another posted photos of a Biloxi apartment building with its roof ripped off. The St. Bernard Parish government Web site posted hourly reports, including on the water levels in the neighborhood and statements from the local high school principal.

By yesterday, Oberkirch -- who posted his own report from a weekend visit to his home -- said his Slidell blog had gotten 400,000 hits in the previous six days.

One posting by another resident included a photo of a crowd lined up on a clear day in front of a building with a collapsed roof. "My dad and I went to Slidell yesterday," the accompanying message said. "As expected, the damage is everywhere . . . [We] went to Our Lady of Lourdes 10:30 mass. They held mass in the street due to the condition of the church."

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