Hurricane Katrina: putting people back in touch
In the weeks following Hurricane Katrina, tens of thousands of American Red Cross volunteers took part in relief efforts on behalf of those affected. Working closely with the American Red Cross the ICRC was also involved, especially in the field of tracing services.
Those affected by conflict or natural disaster are often separated from their families and may find it difficult to let them know they are safe when traditional means of communication are interrupted or unavailable. Others are desperately trying to get in touch with relatives in the affected area. In these circumstances, the Internet is becoming an increasingly important tool in the ICRC's efforts to re-establish contact.Its FamilyLinks website aims to provide a platform for families and friends to get in touch and, in collaboration with the American Red Cross was recently activated on behalf of those affected by Hurricane Katrina.
In the weeks after the disaster, more than 200,000 people registered themselves on the site either as someone seeking a missing relative or as someone who wanted to let relatives know they were safe. The lists can be consulted by those with Internet access or can be printed, distributed or even broadcast on local radio.
Set up in 1999 in response to the Kosovo conflict, the FamilyLinks site has since been used in several countries including Iraq, Liberia, Angola and Bosnia-Herzegovina. It was also used in the aftermath of the tsunami disaster that struck Asia at the end of 2004.
At that time, almost 50,000 people registered on the site and the ICRC had to install additional servers to cope with demand.
Here are some of the comments received by ICRC staff by those who used the service in relation to Katrina:
"Thank you so much for your site….I am pleased to ask you to remove my loved ones' names from the list. They were able to contact us from the listing when they reached safety."
"Thanks so much. This website is a wonderful thing."
"I want to thank you for your time and effort. This program will help a lot of people find their loved ones. My sister has given me a call from Mississippi. She is having a rough time separated from her older children, no electricity, they get fed by the Red Cross twice a day."
"You were really a Godsend – at least we were able to contact someone. God Bless you ALL for your time and effort in helping people find their loved ones."
"Thank you for letting us use this website for Hurricane Katrina."
"Thank you for your site and the wonderful work you are doing in this time of national crisis."
"Two days ago I added the names of my sister and brother-in-law to your list. I received confirmation they are safe in Houston. Thanks again for your excellent help."
Over the past weeks, ICRC staff have answered more than 5,500 requests for information regarding the site.
In addition to its website, the ICRC also sent several tracing specialists from its Protection and Central Tracing Agency Division in Geneva to the United States to provide back-up to American Red Cross colleagues.
The ICRC team operated out of the American Red Cross operational centres set up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and in Montgomery, Alabama.
The tracing specialists visited shelters across Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama to help people in their efforts to find their families. They distributed cell phones, collected personal information that could be added to the website and trained volunteers in local Red Cross chapters to ensure that the tools at the disposal of Katrina victims were well promoted and used.
" Our mission was to contribute to and support the tracing activities that the American Red Cross already had in place, " explains Pierre Barras of the Central Tracing Agency and Protection Division.
ICRC logisticians also played their part in the relief operation. Upon a request from the American Red Cross, a team of experts flew out to set up a system for the most efficient distribution of food to those in the worst affected areas.
The ICRC has now transferred the data relating to the Hurricane on its FamilyLinks website to the American Red Cross, at whose request the data is now stored on
www.katrinasafe.org. The ICRC site www.familylinks.icrc.org/katrina will be deactivated within 30 days.
In addition to its web-related activities, the ICRC works closely with National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies around the world to facilitate the exchange of Red Cross messages between dispersed family members. In all 1.36 million messages were collected and distributed in 2004.