The government is calling on the American Red Cross to take on a technological challenge the dimensions of which it has never before confronted.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency told the organization famous for blood drives and providing blankets to set up Internet kiosks in nearly 200 shelters scattered across the hurricane-stricken Gulf Coast, many of them still without power. It must put in a phone system so that people displaced by the storm can report that they're alive. And it is expected to create a digital mortuary to gather the names of the dead.
Along with volunteers to organize soup kitchens, the Red Cross is dispatching engineers to set up wireless networks and trucks outfitted with satellite equipment that will allow isolated shelters to communicate with the rest of the world.
The challenge in the devastated region is like that faced by an army creating a communications system in a war zone. For the Red Cross, it is a new role, and one for which it is not wholly prepared.
The Red Cross has no choice but to learn on the fly and do as it's asked, said Steven I. Cooper, who joined the Red Cross as chief information officer just three months ago, after 21/2 years in a similar position at the Homeland Security Department.
"We're being tasked with things that even I'm scratching my head at and saying, 'How are we going to do this?' " Cooper said. But he has been through crises before and somehow, he said, it will come together.
Communications are just part of the technological task ahead. Cooper has to figure out how to get money to hundreds of thousands of penniless, homeless people.
After the four hurricanes in Florida last year, Red Cross workers interviewed victims and issued debit cards worth up to $1,200 that could be used to buy food and clothing. That is not practical this time, when there may be as many as a million cases to process. The four hurricanes combined meant 73,000 victims for the organization to help.
During a frenetic Thursday at Red Cross headquarters in the District, Cooper had an idea: a telephone-based registration system and a little help from Western Union. Victims could call the Red Cross, answer questions about themselves, have their identities verified and be issued validation numbers they could use at Western Union to collect $800 to $1,200 each from the Red Cross.
"Can Western Union do that okay?" a Red Cross staffer said.
"I don't know," Cooper responded. "I haven't asked them yet."
He sent his assistant to find a phone number for Western Union.
Thursday's work started at 7:30 a.m. and an hour later Cooper was summoned to his first emergency meeting. Other Red Cross officials had news for him. FEMA, which is leading the relief effort, had still more assignments -- and thus new, complicated and undoubtedly expensive issues for Cooper's department. The Red Cross is hoping it will be reimbursed by the government for much of the work, but no one has worked out the details yet.
Contact mortuaries, FEMA told the Red Cross, and start to compile a secure database with names of the dead. The Red Cross had never handled such a job before, but software developers were quickly assigned to create a system to organize information collected by volunteers.
The Web site on which families can search for missing relatives was already up. But FEMA wanted more, asking the Red Cross to come up with a phone system that would provide the same service because some families might not have Internet access.
That means another call center and hundreds of operators to man the phones, even as the Red Cross keeps its own systems up and running. On Thursday, more than 1 million people visited the Red Cross Web site, crashing it and blocking donations. At one point during the week the organization was only able to answer half the calls that were coming in.
That cannot happen this weekend, when televised appeals for money are expected to send donors across the country to their phones.
On Wednesday evening Cooper made a round of calls to technology companies, asking them to send equipment and brainpower to Washington. By Thursday afternoon, more than 30 engineers and managers from various companies around the country descended on the Red Cross building on E Street NW.
While most companies were more than willing, Western Union was not so sure about what it was being asked. The company wanted to help, but the logistics were complicated -- each store would need new software, they'd have to have enormous amounts of cash on hand and there could be huge liabilities associated with the operation. Executives were going to have to think about it.
Cooper moved forward on other fronts. The Red Cross owns nine trucks with satellite dishes for Internet communication. Cisco Systems Inc. contributed one more and Microsoft Corp. had already sent three satellite-dish-equipped buses to Houston, but no one was saying where they should go.
The shelters complicated the task -- some were temporary, others were primitive. On Thursday afternoon, there were more than 230 shelters, but the plan was to winnow that number to 150. No one could tell the technology team the exact locations or which had electricity or working phones, frustrating Cooper and creating the kind of confusion that was angering people waiting for help.
At 3 p.m. Cooper stood in an overflowing board room of Red Cross staffers and private-sector engineers. He leaned forward, thanked them for coming, explained each challenge and told them to start devising solutions.
That night, after a takeout dinner and hours of strategizing, the crew of more than 60 technologists had a plan and resources on the way. SBC Communications Inc. would add more servers and take care of much of the communications network. Cisco was bringing 21 communication kits, with satellite phones and Internet connections. Intel Corp. was customizing more than 1,000 laptop computers and would install wireless networks at shelters that need them. Microsoft was developing new software programs and redesigning old ones, and dozens of other technology companies were planning to offer help.
Cooper does not know how much this will cost. He promised to pay for the expenses of employees who were brought to Washington, but didn't discuss money beyond that. Much of the equipment and services are likely to be in-kind donations, he said.
As for Western Union, it is on board. The call came in just after 10 p.m. Thursday night.
"I feel pretty good," Cooper said the next morning. "Like I said, I don't have a clue how it's going to happen, I just have faith that it will. And it has."