Lost in Privacy Policy

FEMA regulations actually hinder Katrina victims from contacting loved ones

Hurricane Katrina was no exception to the rule that chaos is an inherent component of natural disaster. So it's no surprise that a technological version of Katrina's craziness popped onto the national scene in the hurricane's aftermath. A gaggle of missing-person message boards and databases now occupy the Web – well intended, but there's a ton of overlap, and in the case of databases, the various search formats are often incompatible. (For a sampling of what we're talking about, see the monster list the University of Southern California's Online Journalism Review has compiled at www.ojr.org/ojr/wiki/katrina.)

Like many a region throughout the country, this cyberchaos impacts Central Texas. How? In addition to the 4,200 Katrina evacuees who landed at the Austin Convention Center in Katrina's immediate aftermath, Mayor Will Wynn noted at a press conference last Tuesday that "there could be several thousand additional folks that are staying with us" a couple of months at the very least. Wayne Brennessel, executive director of the Red Cross' Central Texas chapter, says the organization has helped about 10,000 Katrina clients in the region. So where are the 5,800 informal evacuees – the ones who weren't filtered through the Convention Center?

Kind of like undocumented immigrants, the informal evacuees are floating anonymously below our standard channels of communication, so no one's certain how many there are. What is certain, however, is that you won't find many of them in the plethora of missing-person search services on the Web. That's because the financial aid databases of the Red Cross and FEMA, the two organizations that have the best idea of who the informal evacuees are and the general vicinity in which they could be staying, are sealed to the public, thanks to strict, blanket privacy laws and policies.

According to FEMA, about 160,000 individuals affected by Katrina applied for aid from Texas. Those records are top secret, but FEMA spokeswoman Cory LaBianca said that doesn't really matter since the Red Cross' well-known Family Links people search registry (www.katrinasafe.org) is open to the public. The problem is, however, that even someone who applies for FEMA assistance, and also goes through the process of applying for financial aid from the Red Cross, has to go through an entirely separate, online process to register with Family Links. In hindsight, Brennessel said, it would have been a good idea to make sure that people who came to the Red Cross for assistance who were not staying at the convention center simultaneously registered with Family Links. "We should have double-checked with them, [but] it really didn't cross our mind," he said, adding that having computer kiosks where evacuees could have entered into Family Links their information, especially cell phone numbers, would have been really helpful.

That didn't happen, however, and the Red Cross' financial assistance database, far more comprehensive than the Family Links registry, is only accessible by certain agencies and organizations providing services to evacuees. As Brennessel put it, "Can I turn over my database to the media? No. Can I turn over my database to someone who's going to provide housing for these clients? Yes."

So what now? A plausible solution to this quandary would have been to have Red Cross Katrina aid applicants sign a waiver that would give the organization permission to make their whereabouts public, but that's largely hindsight now. Or is it? As of last week, new Katrina evacuees were still showing up at the Red Cross in Austin for assistance, Brennessel said.

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Hurricane Katrina, Online Journalism Review, Austin Convention Center, Will Wynn, Wayne Brennessel, Red Cross, FEMA, Cory LaBianca, Family Links

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