September 6, 2005

After Katrina, a LUG pitches in

Author: Joe Barr

Just like in other towns across the region, volunteers from the Austin Linux Group are pitching in to help in the recovery from the devastation of Katrina. People displaced by Katrina began showing up in Austin on Wednesday of last week. By the weekend, there were thousands in the Austin Convention Center, and perhaps as many as 5,000 total in Austin. Volunteers eager to help Katrina's victims turned out in droves from the start -- although the frustrations of the chaos attendant with a half-bureaucratic, half-volunteer effort of this scale have taken their toll. Above all else, volunteers have needed to bring patience and creativity with them as they arrived at the convention center.

The first idea that LUG members had to offer assistance was to build a dozen Web stations based on the Public Webstations project we covered last week. Members began building machines to donate and soliciting donations from others.

Cold calls made on Friday to the three largest Austin-based ISPs offering dial-up services brought mixed results. Two of the ISPs did not return the call, but OnRamp Access stepped up and donated a dozen dial-up accounts, good for three months, and provided phone numbers so that we would be able to put them in service over the long holiday weekend if need be.

Then we learned that there were no evacuees housed in the Tony Burger Center, the site we where had been planning on setting up the Web stations. Trying to get through to Red Cross's publicly listed numbers was impossible. Eventually we got the word that storm survivors were being taken to Austin Convention Center (ACC) in large numbers, and that volunteers were needed with IT and data entry skills.

A couple of people from the LUG took that as a cue to go the ACC and begin to pitch in. Once on site, we found that they already had 50 computers set up and had a very fat pipe -- a T3 -- in place. So much for our puny offering, at least for the moment. But we immediately found other ways we could help.

I registered with the Red Cross as a volunteer and was given an orange wristband, then told to proceed to the next room down the hall for assignment. When they asked for people to help the refugees register themselves in a locater database, my hand went up and off we went onto the floor of the convention center.

Thirty-five monitors, keyboards, and mice were set up on too-narrow folding tables along one wall. I say too narrow because the monitors were very deep and there wasn't enough room for the keyboard to fit on the table directly in front of the monitor, they had to either sit slightly-cockeyed or alongside the monitor. Fifteen additional stations were set up the same way on the opposite side of the wall in an adjoining room, which was being used as the triage center.

A high-school student showed me how to register people in the database, get them an email account at Yahoo, and to publish their data so their family and friends could not only learn they had survived, but were in Austin, and send them email as well. There was also a crash course in how to search for other survivors in the same database at other recovery centers.

Then there was a tap on my shoulder, and a polite voice asking "Mister, can you help me look for my grandmother." Time flew by. That first day there were always people lined up waiting to get to a computer. Some needed assistance, some didn't. Volunteers walked up and down the line looking for people to help.

Children using the computers to play games were sometimes asked to give up the machine so someone could be registered or could search for loved ones. I was struck at how quickly the young and very young seemed to be able to bounce back from this incomprehensible tragedy. Not so the adults. Every time I helped a survivor enter themselves in the database, I was surprised by their ages. I guess the week they had spent in hell really aged them. They looked much older. The stories I heard have aged me as well.

One young man, about 28, told me how he and his wife survived the storm, and then the flood. They made their way to a bridge where they could be picked up by rescue helicopters. But he said that his wife fell from the rescue sling just before they got her into the chopper. They came back down to get her, and told her husband that they would be back for him. But they never came back. Kevin wanted to search the hospitals in New Orelans to see if she were there.

I told him they had all been evacuated, and that if she were still in New Orleans, she was probably at the airport, where the most critical were cared for until evacuation. He said he knew that, and that he had gone through the airport on the way to Austin, but they wouldn't let him look to see if his wife was there or not. He told me he hadn't called her family yet because he didn't want to give them the terrible news he had without knowing if she were alive or dead. We searched, and searched again. When I saw him the next day, I asked and he still had no word on her fate or location.

More skilled IT workers from the LUG -- from every facet of Austin society, not just the LUG, of course -- found other ways to help. Dzuy Nguyen found the assignments room to be too busy, too crowded, and taking too long. He bypassed it completely and found his way to the City of Austin IT Command Center. Once there, he made himself of use by helping other volunteers from the University of Texas set up a router/proxy server to protect the children from pornography.

The next day he was back again and he stayed until 2AM, just helping people to register and search for relatives. Dzuy is still an "on-call" volunteer to help with router, server, and networking problems when neeeded. I was struck by an account of his on the ALG mailing list, where he wrote:

I was a refugee myself, and I don't mind being referred to as such because that what I was - refuging from my home. One thing we need to forget about is political correctedness in times like these and focus on what is needed to be done and get it done. I have my own story too. I've heard so many refugee and human suffering stories early in my life that they probably made me stronger or has dried my tears a little. But as I walked through the floors of the convention center, amongst these people, I just felt humbled because I've been in their situation myself, and privileged to be able to be in the position to help because I've envied the people who helped me.

The frustrations

Not everyone shares Dzuy's unique perspective, and for some, the frustrations are too great. The databases are not seamless, nor do searches work properly. For example, the first thing that happens when people arrive at the center is their registration into a Red Cross database. Evidently, that database is not set up for access by the outside world. When volunteers ask later if they have been registered, communication sometimes breaks down. "Yes!" they say, "I was registered when I first got here." But they haven't been registered in The List.

The strain on Yahoo is showing. At times it becomes unresponsive, so volunteers simply began using Hotmail instead. The important thing being to provide a means of contact for those who are searching for the victims who are registering.

On Monday, the Red Cross was simply unable to cope with the number of volunteers who appeared. By 2PM, they were turning people away. Several members of the LUG showed up and gave up before ever getting an assignment. Again, patience, understanding, and creativity are real prerequisites for being of help.

Personally, my problem seemed to me to be that I simply was not tough enough for the work. The horror of the personal tales so many survivors had to tell was wearing me down. I tried to tell people that my eyes were tearing up because of an allergic reaction to the AC system, but nobody believed me.

This morning I couldn't even find the volunteer check-in site. It had been moved to another part of the building. I snuck in and went to work without a new wristband. Later, I looked for the City IT Command Center and it had been moved, too. Nobody seemed to know where. I wanted to tell them we needed another 25 computers exclusively for the children. It's hard being a child and being cooped up day in and day out. A little mindless fun would be a very good thing.

The satisfactions

I don't think that I will ever forget the expression on the young man's face when -- after a volunteer found a match on his grandmother's name at another Red Cross site -- they were talking on the phone a minute later. It was a picture of pure joy and relief. And it wasn't the only one. I saw it happen a dozen times the second day. And that's what motivates me and hundreds of other volunteers to be a part of that.

There is something else, too. Even when the miracles are happening right in front of my eyes. These people have been in hell for a week, whether at the convention center in New Orleans, or on a rooftop, or wading through sewage to rescue. Human misery compounded by an apparent lack of concern on the part of the rest of the country. It's a good feeling to be there and to show them that we do care, even if we couldn't get to them sooner.

Many of the victims seem numbed with grief and simply overcome by the enormity of what has happened to their lives, but almost universally they sense that at last they are in a better place, and the people around them really want to be of help. They know they aren't alone any longer.

Leaving the convention center today, there were large crowds in two separate parts of the building. One was where the FEMA office had been set up, so people could apply for aid in housing, insurance, and so on. The second was a spot reserved for volunteer barbers and hair dressers, who were providing their services free on a first-come, first-served basis. It's not just the LUG. It's not just IT people in general. It made me proud to be a part of the Austin community.

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