September 9, 2005

Despite frustrations, Katrina volunteers keep trying

Author: Joe Barr

As expected, there are fewer volunteers to help with computer usage and computer-related issues at the Austin Convention Center during the normal business week than on the weekends. This morning, for example, I couldn't move down the line of public Internet access stations more than a few feet at a time without being asked if I could help someone with something.It was another day of frustrations, mixed with one or two successes. The FEMA Web site crashed at least a dozen times as I was trying to register storm victims. The near impossibility of registering applicants through the FEMA Web site is one more example of FEMA's poor response to this disaster. My experience is one success per ten attempts. On-site FEMA help has been promised -- but very hard to find -- all week. There are reports that they did show up in force at the Austin Convention Center today, but I wasn't there to see it. There are also reports that FEMA is addressing browser compatibility issues on its Web site.

Ricky's request today was unusual. He didn't want to register with FEMA, he wanted to check his newly created email account. This was a welcome relief from the FEMA disaster. He pulled a handful of crumpled scraps of paper from his pocket, searched through them briefly, then handed me a page with his Yahoo ID and password. I logged into his account, checked his inbox, and told him he had mail from Deborah and John.

"Deborah? That's my wife!" he exclaimed with a huge grin. We read the email together. She was in San Antonio, at what used to be Kelly Air Force Base. She had seen Ricky on The List, and had gotten his Yahoo email address from it. She gave her location within the huge building, and a phone number where he could leave her voice mail.

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I helped Ricky reply to her email, then we decided to drive to San Antonio and bring her back to Austin. He has an apartment lined up which should be available next week, and hopes to find a construction job before then. He doesn't plan to return to New Orleans except for belongings and any relatives who might want to live with him in Texas.

It's only a 75- or 80-mile drive between the two shelters, and by noon we were there. We made a bee-line to section C-7 and began looking for Deborah. No luck. We asked if there was a public address system, and were directed to the Red Cross info center at the other end of the building.

Once there, we were told there was no PA system, and that our best bet was to make signs with her name on them, and walk up and down the floor until we found her. So that's what we did. Unfortunately, we didn't find Deborah -- but we did learn that she had left the shelter that morning, about the same time we were reading her email, with an "adoptive family."

We went back to the Red Cross info center and got even worse news. She did not check out when she left, and it was impossible to know where she might be. Ricky's mood changed from euphoric to heartbroken in seconds. To come so close to being reunited, and then to lose her again. It wasn't fair.

Eventually we found the volunteer who had helped Deborah yesterday. First they found Ricky's name on the list, created an email account, and sent the email that Ricky and I had read earlier in the day. It was very strange, two geek volunteers from two separate cities, each trying to help the other half of a couple find each other, coming face-to-face. Brooks, the volunteer, told me she remembered because she was so excited at having found someone on the list. I told her I had felt the same way as Ricky read the email that morning.

By 4 p.m., we were back at the Austin Convention Center, hoping against hope that Deborah hadn't gone to live with a family in San Antonio, but that she had been leaving the shelter to come to the Austin Convention Center, since she knew that Ricky was there. By 5 p.m., I was back home, but there was no happy phone message announcing their reunion waiting for me.

As a hedge, I called KSAT (the ABC affiliate in San Antonio), gave them the details of the story, and asked them to run a blurb to help locate Deborah or the family she left the center with. They said would try. I guess that's all any of us can do. Sometimes we get lucky, sometimes we don't.

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