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Magazines > Searcher > June 2006
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Vol. 14 No. 6 — June 2006
A Failure to Communicate
Politics, Scams, and Information Flow During Hurricane Katrina

by Paul Piper | Librarian, Western Washington University and
Miguel Ramos| Library and Archive Paraprofessional, Western Washington University

Hurricane Katrina initially made landfall north of Miami, Florida, on Aug. 25, 2005, as a Category 1 hurricane, then swelled out over the Gulf into a massive force 5. It hit the Louisiana coast near New Orleans at 6:10 a.m. (CDT) on Aug. 29, diminished somewhat to a Category 3 storm. At around 11:00 a.m. (CDT) that same date, several of the levees holding back the waters of Lake Pontchartrain, a brackish lake of 630 square miles, breached. Within minutes, considerable flooding had occurred, forcing many remaining residents to flee to their rooftops, where many remained for days. Many more didn’t make it.

The official death toll now stands at 1,420, with damage projected from between $70 billion to $130 billion, but both of these figures could rise by time of publication. Hurricane Katrina has topped Hurricane Andrew as the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history. Over a million people were displaced — the largest humanitarian crisis in the U.S. since the Great Depression.

But Hurricane Katrina was in reality two disasters. The initial disaster was the hurricane itself that ripped the coastlands of Louisiana and Mississippi to shreds and left New Orleans a wasteland. The secondary disaster was the unbelievably poor communication and response that occurred between federal, regional, state, and local relief agencies and efforts after the hurricane. The combination of these two back-to-back disasters has caused catastrophic damage to a vast human population.

The horrific consequences of Hurricane Katrina are too numerous to quote here and have been reported consistently in the press. These consequences include record numbers of deaths, injuries, refugees, and expenses as well as a city of approximately 1,300,000 million people that will need to be almost entirely rebuilt.

Communication Issues

Communications breakdowns will occur during any natural disaster, especially one as devastating to an infrastructure as Hurricane Katrina. Some of the most vulnerable communication tools, such as cell phone towers and radio antennas, depend on aboveground structures. A 400-foot antenna built to withstand 150 mile-per-hour winds fell during the storm, crippling communications for the sheriff’s office in Jefferson Parish. A majority of the public-safety systems serving police and fire departments in the Gulf Coast region ceased functioning, severely hampering the coordination of rescue efforts. The New Orleans Police Department’s system was largely inoperative for 3 days following the hurricane.

These failures left many key emergency response personnel with no way of communicating with one another during a time when coordination of rescue efforts was most important. In New Orleans, hundreds of police officers were left trying to communicate on two radio channels using a back-up system, which resulted in delays before their messages could get through.

Many of these failures occurred because of poor planning, with key generators placed on ground floors vulnerable to flooding; however, at least one transmission site operated by the New Orleans police flooded despite being 10 feet off the ground. Other communications systems that stopped functioning due to loss of power resulting from damaged generators couldn’t be repaired for days because technicians were not allowed past state police roadblocks. Backup systems became overwhelmed due to high volume.

Phone lines proved vulnerable to Katrina, with almost 2 million phone lines and cell phones experiencing interruptions or being out of service along the Gulf Coast. New Orleans residents trapped in their homes by floodwaters couldn’t call for help and family members couldn’t call to find out if they had escaped. This combination of failed backup generators (either flooded or out of fuel), downed telephone lines, flooding in the switch offices that route calls, and overwhelmed phone lines resulted in a defunct phone system.

Hurricane Katrina became, unwittingly, an acid test of communication during and after a disaster involving all modes of communication technology. Immediately following the storm, it’s safe to say there was information chaos. Some of this can be attributed to poorly mapped channels of communication flow at local, state, regional, and particularly federal levels, and some of it was due to equipment damage and malfunction.

Emergency services radio towers in the area, built to resist sustained winds within the 200 MPH range, largely remained functional. Cell phone services broke down due to tower, antennae, and equipment damage. Cell on Wheels, a mobile cell service, was not properly deployed. Text messaging on cell phones however, worked remarkably well. Radio and TV stations, for the most part, successfully stayed on the air, often employing satellites. But who was listening?

The major BellSouth Internet hub in New Orleans went remarkably unscathed, but there were serious problems at the user-connect end. Head-ends, the cable boxes that house DSL circuitry, situated only a few feet off the ground, were submerged; many corporate and office systems were shut off to prevent short circuiting. In areas that sustained power outages, DSL likewise went down. BellSouth had not installed battery backup, knowing batteries would be insufficient to power a system of such magnitude.

Needless to say, it took a few days for communication systems to minimally be resurrected. In spite of that, there were immediate and sustaining communication successes, particularly on the Internet. The following examples are representative of these. Some of these sites are no longer functioning in the same capacity as directly after the disaster, but for interested parties, the WayBack Machine at the Internet Archives [] will allow one to examine how sites performed in crisis.

General Sites

Perhaps the most comprehensive of these is the Internet Archive’s list []. The list was the work of numerous contributors crawling sites between 9/4/2005 and 10/17/2005. This collection contains more than 25 million searchable documents and, in the words of the archive, “will be preserved by Internet Archive with access to historians, researchers, scholars and the general public.” Sites are categorized into News Sites, Personal Sites, Relief Sites, and Government Sites on the home page, but this is a bit confusing, since the pictured links only take the user to the site pictured, not a list of relevant categorized links. The archive also hosts a search engine, but a search for “pets” yielded only one relevant result out of the ten on the first page of results. The other option is an alphabetized list of all (hundreds, perhaps thousands) the URLs crawled. So while the site undoubtedly contains extremely valuable information, ferreting it out is hardly intuitive.

Obviously, the major Web search engines such as Google and Yahoo! were and remain extremely useful search tools for Hurricane Katrina information. Don’t forget News search features or, in Google’s case, its Blog Search [], which supports date searches in its Advanced Search mode. Using this extremely useful feature to track blogger storm coverage, we found one Hurricane Katrina blog post on Aug. 24th, 31 on the 25th, 61 on the 26th, 64 on the 27th, 302 on the 28th, and 564 on the 29th.

Wikipedia [] has an extensive entry on Hurricane Katrina replete with numerous links. The coverage is quite comprehensive in scope (scientific, economic/political, relief — local, regional, national, and international perspectives) and kept very up-to-date. For example, within hours of press releases re-categorizing Katrina’s landfall strength from a category 4 to a category 3, the entry carried the updated information.

WEB Triad’s online community created NC Disaster Aid [], a centralized Web portal, to help the region organize Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. This site is an example of how an online community can respond and also how to generate relief from outside the disaster area. The site provides information on the many relief efforts underway in the community — from making and sending “flood buckets” to providing housing.

At present, Relief Connections [] is a Web portal which provides a forum for groups affected by Hurricane Katrina, helping them connect with groups across the country and around the world.

Craiglist’s Help for Katrina Survivors [] is one of the more comprehensive sites, featuring links to 32 relief agencies, plus sections on employment, missing persons, and housing for New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Houston, Jackson, Mobile, Montgomery, Shreveport, and Pensacola.

Social networks such as Gather [] are also valuable sources of Katrina information.

Blogs and Citizen Journalists

Bloggers are beginning to understand and crystallize their role in emergency response to the point in which Rex Hammock of urged bloggers to organize and discuss emergency preparedness before needs arise, to lay the groundwork in advance. One of the more interesting shifts experienced during the Katrina disaster occurred when many bloggers found themselves impeded by power and communication disruptions while major news outlets began adopting blogging and bulletin board functions.

The number of blogs that have featured, or currently feature, sections pertaining to the Katrina disaster is staggering. A recent Google advanced search for the words “Katrina” and “blog” in the URL pulled up over 34,000 hits. Obviously, many are duplicate sites, but a substantial number are not. And the range of blog topics is remarkable — restaurants, boat owners, dancers, and education, in addition to personal and relief organizations. In fact, there were so many Katrina blogs and so many other blogs that covered Katrina information, it’s nearly impossible to survey them. The following represent some of those efforts.

Despite obstacles and lack of disaster response training, bloggers once again demonstrated their vital worth in a disaster’s aftermath. N.Z. Bear of The Truth Laid BearBlog [] organized an online event called Hurricane Katrina: Blog for Relief Weekend, which took place from Thursday, Sept. 1 to Monday, Sept. 5. The event was open to any blogger who wanted to raise awareness and contributions for relief. Bloggers selected their favored charity from an extensive screened list of legitimate charities. Three hundred and seventy-five were chosen by 1,877 blogs, which raised a total of $1,347,493 for hurricane relief. Pretty amazing.

Several representative personal blogs were Kaye Trammell’s, an assistant professor in the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, Hurricane Katrina Blog [], which ran live from Sept. 1 to Sept. 24, represents the kind of information bloggers can provide — where to volunteer, location of shelters, safety issues, and, of course, the fate of New Orleans Saints’ football.

Bloggers are a great source of amateur eyewitness reporting, as demonstrated by Bobbysan [], who blogged throughout the storm until his laptop’s battery died, and John Strain’s Online Journal [], which shared the perspective of a social worker. The Interdictor [] has been renamed the Survival of New Orleans blog; it is written in a more survivalist, militaristic voice, representing a clear determination to ride out the chaos that resulted after Katrina. The Eye of the Storm [] continues to report on recovery and to provide useful links for Mississippi damage. One of these links is the Mississippi Renewal site [], which hosts Final Design Team Reports for the 11 Mississippi cities most devastated by Katrina.

The New Orleans-based Katrina Aftermath blog [], still publishing updates, noted: “Text messaging has been the saving technology for us in this hurricane. While the normal voice circuits have been down completely (in New Orleans) or clogged (in Baton Rouge), text messages have been getting through even to those completely cut off in every other way. It’s interesting so many older mobile phone users just aren’t into texting, and so they never use it. Now, they’re learning on the spot.”

Professional journalists were blogging as well. Arizona Daily Star reporter Stephanie Innes and photographer Kelly Presnell, along with many other journalists, covered the aftermath in a paper-sponsored blog.

Metroblogging New Orleans [] is an online collective of 11 bloggers that continues to provide a local perspective on relief efforts. The observations, insights, analysis, and commentary are wry, lively, and diverse.

Hurricane Katrina Direct Relief [], a blog created by two mothers, is dedicated solely to matching volunteers with volunteer opportunities.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Beyond Borders Blog [] began discussing the fate of illegal immigrants caught in the disaster and brought into the rebuilding efforts.

The unique and valuable perspectives offered by sites like these demonstrate the incredible capabilities of the Web.

Visual Information

The Katrina Information Map [] is a visual wiki developed by Jonathan Mendez and Greg Stoll. It allows visitors to move over a Google map of the affected areas of the Gulf Coast and to read information on specific sites (denoted by red, purple, and green teardrops). Citizens who live in the areas described submitted the information. As with all wikis, the information provided (though usually useful and accurate) is open to anyone to modify. Consequently, there have been some cases of fraudulent and/or inaccurate postings. However, the collaborative and real-time nature of this wiki lends itself well to those seeking information about specific areas.


The Times–Picayune office on Howard Street, just a mile from the Superdome in downtown New Orleans, suffered loss of electricity and phone lines. The paper continued functioning temporarily on the building’s generator, but by 10 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 29, the Lakeview levee had been breached. The next morning water was rising steadily throughout the city and the newspaper’s publisher, Ashton Phelps, ordered an evacuation of the building, which staff obeyed, taking laptops and other portable equipment. There was no Tuesday text-based paper, but the staff was determined to continue collecting and disseminating news. A 12-member team traveled to Houma, La., 57 miles southwest of New Orleans, where they were put up by the staff of the Houma Courier. They published a copy of the paper in PDF format and uploaded it to the NOLA [] Web site on Wednesday. Rudimentary though it was, the paper contained breaking news — 17 articles, one editorial, and 12 photographs — and was a triumph of field journalism. By Thursday, this group rejoined the rest of the staff in Baton Rouge, where, by Friday, they published the paper in print (50,000 copies), but still continued the PDF version. The NOLA Web site is still an excellent source for post-hurricane rebuilding and resettling information.

Most other national newspapers, too numerous to name, hosted special Katrina sections that carried updates and links to additional and supplemental information. The majority of these have a Web presence and, since these papers were not affected by immediate damage, often did a good job of coalescing and editing the spotty information feeds emerging from the area.

Offering an invaluable and under-represented perspectives, New Orleans IndyMedia [] emphasizes alternative and grassroots news of post-Katrina disasters and successes.

Getting Help

While many of the sites already mentioned assist people affected by the storm in obtaining assistance, the sites mentioned below are some of the more authoritative sites in terms of comprehensiveness of focus, usability, and access. Again, the number of sites that contain information useful to Katrina victims is almost unwieldy. We’ve included only a few representative sites, but this overwhelming flood of information can be looked at both positively as a duplication of effort, ensuring that people will obtain access via a number of outlets, or negatively, in that too much information becomes difficult to filter, and victims may not be capable of judging the authoritativeness or scope of sites. Interestingly, government sites such as FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), typically the first place Internet-savvy people would turn for information, did not keep up with the information flow and became suspect as reliable sources of information.

General Government [] hosts a substantive list of links to assist people in finding family and friends; how to get help; shelter, and housing for survivors; donate and volunteer; health and safety; what the government is doing; as well as an FAQ. The links at this site have been screened and organized by the federal government, but include regional, local, and organizational sites as well.

FEMA [] seems like an obvious choice for those seeking Katrina disaster information on the Internet. Given this, and given the prominence of Katrina compared to all other recent disasters, Katrina information on its Web site is rather dissolute and scattered. First and foremost is a registration form whereby one can apply for disaster assistance online. The site also features news relating to FEMA, which, when we last checked, concerned FEMA responding to a court order about extending housing for hurricane victims.

The Hurricane Katrina Information link provides the richest source of information. Categorized links include Frequently Asked Questions, Housing Assistance, Na­tional Flood Insurance Program, Recovery Resources, State and Local Government Resources, Media Resources, Katrina Recovery Maps, and satellite imagery of property damage in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi. This page also includes what states and counties have been designated for assistance with related news and photos; a map of the U.S. showing the location of applicants affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita; and a city summary report on Hotel Use for Hurricanes. The information behind these links is detailed and useful. For example, the Housing link takes the user to a page covering shelters, transitional housing, rental properties, and financial assistance and loans available from a number of agencies. Most of this information is simply written and appended with instructions and suggestions for obtaining aid. Much of the other information, we suspect, including flood maps and disaster declarations, are provided for, among other things, insurance purposes.

The National Weather Service’s National Hurricane Center and Tropical Prediction Center [] issues warnings and forecasts of hazardous tropical weather and coordinates cyclone analysis for 24 countries in the Americas and Caribbean regions. The National Hurricane Center also conducts an outreach and education program for emergency managers. The site includes a news archive that provides extensive Tropical Cyclone Reports for the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season and links to hurricane preparedness and awareness resources. There are links to Hurricane History that include categories such as Deadliest, Costliest, and Most Intense tropical cyclones up to 2004.

As of this writing the News link points to NOAA’s National Weather Service Public Affairs Office and includes an article titled “Preparing for the Severe Weather of Spring,” as well as a Podcast discussing the dangers of flooding. With its links to other government resources, such as the Office of Climate, Water, and Weather Services, this site is a good first resource for anyone wanting to keep track of severe weather anywhere in the U.S. and particularly for future hurricanes in the Atlantic and Eastern Pacific oceans. In fact, when it comes to reporting on current conditions, this is probably the source the news media turn to first.

Local Government

The State of Louisiana hosts an official Web page [] for disseminating information on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. This extremely detailed and comprehensive site features information on nearly every aspect of disaster response. Some of the more unique features of the site include information on insurance, price gouging, and jobs, in addition to maps and a section entitled Louisiana Heroes, featuring stories of courage and selflessness.


NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) and private disaster relief organizations were put to the test attempting to organize and coordinate disaster relief on a massive scale on their own home turfs. Most, if not all, of these organizations have an Internet or Web presence. Interaction [] is an alliance of over 160 U.S.-based international development and humanitarian NGOs. It has a list published on its Web site with links to all member organizations responding to the hurricane. An accompanying list carries addresses and phone numbers.

Public Health

The Department of Health and Human Services(HHS) [] has gathered public health related information from several organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which has its own Katrina page [] featuring a key section on Molds. The agency hosts Web pages, often in several languages, that cover numerous post-disaster health topics, such as water and food safety. In addition, the site lists where and how to get help, donate and volunteer, and find people, along with links to key state government agencies in the region.

The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals Office of Public Health [] also offers public health information in the form of five short PDF documents entitled: Mold — What You Need to Know; Returning Home Safely After Hurricane Katrina; Protecting Yourself Against Indoor Mold and Mildew; Food and Water Safety; What to Do About Mold in Your Home.


Housing Opportunities for Katrina Survivors [] is a clearinghouse for housing needs and availability. It offers detailed forms (how many people, rooms, pets allowed, special needs, payment, etc.) and attempts to match need with availability. The site was set up on Sept 1 by a programming company, MyTechSupport Inc.

HurricaneHousing [] is now closed, but this was an initial and valuable attempt, sponsored by, aimed at matching refugees with housing.

Missing Persons

The DisasterSearch [] site hosts a database containing information on approximately 496,450 safe (found) and missing people. This excellent resource was created by the Joomla open source community as a central registry for evacuees, families looking to reunite, and the people working to assist them. It was created and is maintained by a small team of volunteer software developers, Web designers, and graphic designers from around the globe. In addition to the database of persons, the site also hosts shelter, employment board, aid forms, and a morgue list. It is updated daily. We are truly grateful for the efforts of groups such as this, committed and caring people utilizing technology to make a better world.

Lycos built a searchable database [] that aggregated search results from multiple missing persons sites, making it easier for people to find friends and family. The database searched more than 35 Web sites, but is no longer extant. Yahoo! also released a search tool that simultaneously searches for people from across multiple missing persons boards on the Web [].

The Family News Network from the American Red Cross [] was scheduled to be taken down Feb. 28, 2006, but is still functioning as a database called Family Linking. The site, created in collaboration with Microsoft, allows refugees to enter their name and location into the database, and those seeking missing ones to search the database. As of Dec. 15, 2005, there were 340,989 refugees registered, 41 of whom had registered within the previous 24 hours.

Louisiana Hospital Association [] has updated status reports as well as a patient locator database, for those in and evacuated from Louisiana hospitals. The Louisiana Nursing Home Association [] hosts a similar service.

Many states provide lists of the refugees the states are hosting.

Missing Property

The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) [] hosts a database that allows one to search for vehicles and watercraft damaged, towed, or lost in the Katrina disaster. The NICB gathered the database content from a number of sources, including insurance companies, salvage yards, state and local authorities, and others. It emphasizes that this information has not been independently verified and that it cannot vouch for accuracy. Searches are by Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) or Hull Identification Number (HIN). The sale of “Katrina cars” has become a national problem, with many of these vehicles being shipped out and sold under false pretenses.


Many NGOs and disaster relief groups continue to recruit volunteers to assist in the cleanup and relocation following Hurricane Katrina. Recruitment forms and contact information are available on their Web sites. The State of Louisiana has set up contact information on its Web site [] and groups such as Volunteers of America [], a national, nonprofit, spiritually based organization, are accepting volunteers for Katrina relief.

Many organizations, agencies, and individuals accepted or matched donations. Family-to-Family [], an organization that creates bridges between areas of wealth and those impoverished, was quick to respond with a Sponsor a Family program, as well as “Toys for Katrina’s Kids.” This program received and distributed more than 12,000 toys in a valiant attempt to make Katrina victims’ Christmases more joyous. partners to a program called “Just One Book” [] in which shoppers buy a book (a list of priorities are provided) that is then donated to affected schools. Where-to-Send-Goods Blog [] became a clearinghouse immediately after the storm for what to donate and where.


Google Maps [], which now offers satellite photography, hosted a Katrina section that concentrated on satellite imagery of the Katrina disaster. The views were absolutely mind-blowing.

Hurricane Information Maps [] combined the utility of wikis and Google Maps and created a resource for tracking or reporting flood damage. A map of the path of Katrina can be viewed at [].

What Else Went Wrong

If the utter suffering, chaos, and botched relief efforts weren’t enough, scamsters were out in force, attempting to profit off victims.


One may dream of a world where humans do not prey on other humans, particularly those in desperate need, but we learn daily that humanity has a long evolution ahead. In the days shortly before Katrina hit, when the hype and predictions and damage projections were still in the realm of imagination, over 4,000 domains were registered with the name Katrina. Some of these were legitimate relief enterprises paving the way by installing critical online infrastructure, but a substantial percentage were anticipating outright opportunism and fraud. Authorities with the FBI estimate that more than half the Katrina- related Web sites may have been fraudulent, with many of them originating overseas.

Typical Katrina-related scams include unsolicited e-mails and telephone calls seeking direct donations to a phony organization; e-mails that refer the potential donor to a Web site that appears legitimate but is not; e-mails containing viruses; services offering to locate family or friends for a fee; and solicitations recommending hurricane-related investment opportunities.

Fraudulent Web Sites

The following examples were reported in numerous news sources and can be verified and supplemented in resources such as LexisNexis, FindLaw, ProQuest Newspapers, and Google and Yahoo! News.

A judge in Missouri ordered 10 Web sites closed after the state’s Attorney General, Jay Nixon, accused a St. Louis man, Frank Weltner, of illegally soliciting donations for Katrina relief efforts. The sites all fed into This was the first case of official action regulating Web scams taking advantage of the Hurricane Katrina victims in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

Nixon’s lawsuit also claimed that Weltner, the person behind and the one who registered the domains,,, and, is affiliated with the National Alliance [], a radical white supremacy group. “This is a horrendous abuse of the victims of Hurricane Katrina, to benefit a hate group,” Nixon said at a news conference []. Frank Weltner is also creator/author of the nefarious Web site Jew Watch []. hosted dramatic accounts of rescue missions flown into the Gulf Coast to rescue disaster victims and sought money to sustain these flights. Gary Kraser, the alleged AirKatrina pilot, sold domain Web sites for a living. He launched through an online forum board,, spuriously claiming he had just rescued a 7-month-old in need of a transplant from certain death and asking for money to continue his work.

As reported in USA Today (Thomas Frank, Nov. 14, 2005. p. A.16) contributors started to sense something fishy about Kraser’s Web site and contacted the Internet Fraud Complaint Center [] in Washington. Rick Schwartz and fellow members of provided the FBI with Kraser’s message board postings.

FBI agents contacted Richard Melnick, the Web site registrant, and donated $2,700 to his cause. Melnick said he had flown several missions himself to reunite evacuees with their families and needed money for fuel. The agents begged to differ, charging him with embezzlement for illegally collecting charitable funds. When additional questions were raised about the Web site, Melnick and Kraser returned all donations. His lawyer, Alvin Entin, even claimed that Kraser continued the flights, delivering beds and medical supplies to the Gulf Coast, out of his own pocket. The site is no longer active.

Charles Crist, Florida’s Attorney General, filed a deceptive trade practices lawsuit against Robert E. Moneyhan, also known as Demon Moon, for the fraudulent Web sites:,,,, and others. Crist accused Moneyhan of registering the names as Hurricane Katrina strengthened in the Gulf of Mexico. Crist said donations from the unregistered Internet sites were directed to Moneyhan’s personal PayPal account and none of the money went to assist hurricane victims. (If interested, read the civil action in full at]

The lawsuit accused Moneyhan of registering the Katrina-related domain names as early as Aug. 28, even before the hurricane hit the Louisiana coast. By Aug. 31, according to the attorney, Moneyhan’s sites had begun asking visitors to donate. The domains in question are now owned by, a collection of Web sites offering resources, information, and fund-raising during catastrophic events. Kevin Caruso, the proprietor of, said that he had offered to buy the sites from Moneyhan, but that Moneyhan ultimately donated them.

eBay, the online auction service, halted bidding on several Katrina-related Web site names [ and others]. Bidding was to start at $15,000 and the seller promised to deliver half the final bid to the American Red Cross. eBay allows sellers to dedicate a portion of their profits to charities, but requires the seller to obtain permission from the charity first. Red Cross officials said no such permission had been granted, and eBay said it terminated the auction because the seller did not observe company rules on charitable giving (The Washington Post,Washington, D.C.: Sept. 1, 2005. p. D.12).

Fighting Back


The rampant greed, fraud, and opportunism that co-evolved with the Katrina disaster were met head on by efforts to counteract them. Several Web sites were rapidly created, or adapted, to deal with Katrina fraud. The Internet Crime Complaint Center [] is a collaboration between the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center. The site posted and distributed a warning shortly after the hurricane:

Alert Prepared by the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) September 1, 2005 FRAUDULENT SITES CAPITALIZING ON RELIEF EFFORTS OF HURRICANE KATRINA!!! The FBI is seeing an influx of websites soliciting for charitable donations to aid the victims of the latest natural disaster, Hurricane Katrina. Consistent with previous guidance on incidents of Phishing/Spoofing and Identity Theft, when considering on-line options for providing funding to this relief effort, consumers should consider the following:

• Do not respond to any unsolicited (SPAM) incoming e-mails.

• To ensure contributions to U.S. based non-profit organizations are used for intended purposes, go directly to recognized charities and aid organization’s websites, as opposed to following a link to another site.

• Attempt to verify the legitimacy of non-profit organizations by utilizing various Internet-based resources which may assist in confirming the existence of the organization, as well as its non-profit status.

• Be leery of e-mails claiming to show pictures of the disaster areas in attached files, as the files may contain viruses. Only open attachments from known senders. Several variations of this scam are currently in circulation. Be aware, scammers will attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the relief efforts along the Gulf coast. If you have received a fraud, or similar e-mail, please file a complaint at

The Federal Bureau of Investigation(FBI) [] has a site dedicated specifically to Hurricane Katrina. The site carries a link to the Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force [], a collaboration of the Justice Department, Federal Trade Commission, and other government agencies, led by Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher and addressing all the frauds designed around the hurricane. The task force focuses on four types of fraud: phony charities, identity theft, insurance fraud, and government-benefit scams. At the time of writing, not much remained there outside of a few governmental links, a press release, and a few headlines.

Although FEMA [] has been the victim of particular fraud, both on the giving and receiving end, it hosts only minimal information on its Web site relating to Hurricane Katrina scams. The following is excerpted from a FEMA news bulletin of Oct. 29, 2005, and is pretty near the extent of its post-disaster fraud information.

Louisiana residents need to be aware of some common ploys, such as phone calls from people claiming to be with FEMA. Typically, residents are asked if they have registered with FEMA for disaster assistance. If it is confirmed they have registered, the caller will ask for a Social Security number and income information. The caller may then ask for a checking account number and bank routing information. Giving out this type of information is enough for an unscrupulous person to make a false claim for disaster assistance as well as to commit identity theft.

FEMA is instructing disaster victims to ask any callers claiming to be with the agency to give their personal identification number from their badge. If disaster victims feel uncomfortable with providing information to callers claiming to be a FEMA representative, they should immediately call FEMA at 1-800- 621-FEMA (3362) or TTY 1-800-462-7585 to answer any questions or to complete their application. Disaster victims are strongly cautioned against using non-FEMA or federal government Internet sites and toll-free numbers when providing personal and financial information.

Disaster victims should be leery of anyone they do not know offering to help by filling out disaster assistance documents. Citizens should not give personal or financial information to a “good Samaritan” wanting to help. For example, a disaster victim may allow a neighbor to fill out forms for disaster assistance. By doing so, the neighbor could easily give his or her own checking account number and routing information to wrongly receive disaster assistance.

Mystifying (or not) is FEMA’s release to the media of the names of 19 faith-based charities (plus the Red Cross, Humane Society, and three lesser-known groups) to which the public should donate (The Los Angeles Times, Sept. 25).

The news is currently saturated with the names of people under prosecution for filing false claims with FEMA. Other fraudulent activity reports concern the use of FEMA-issued debit cards to purchase items as diverse as breast implants (although this is still unsubstantiated) and $800 Louis Vuitton handbags. More than 10,000 of these cards were issued to assist refugees in Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio. Each card carried a monetary value of $2,000. While restrictions prohibited the purchase of alcohol, tobacco, or firearms and recipients were required to sign an agreement promising to use the cards only for disaster-recovery purposes, there have allegedly been numerous abuses. On Sept. 11, 2005, just 3 days after its start, the debit card program was discontinued and FEMA reverted to its traditional mode of directly depositing cash into the bank accounts of those being assisted. [], a site developed and maintained by a joint federal law enforcement and industry task force, has posted a page of tips for potential donors at

Here are some of the tips:

• Avoid cash gifts.

• Use a check or credit card.

• Check out the charity, organization, or company before giving.

• Watch out for solicitations that come from a company that sounds like a well-known charity.

Pretty common-sense suggestions, but details can be overlooked in times of panic and disaster.

Nongovernmental set up a specific page addressing Katrina issues and hoaxes []. The Internet ScamBusters site is rich in tips for avoiding bogus information. See the “ScamBusters” sidebar on page 52 for a comprehensive list of examples.

Snopes [], one of the most consistent and reliable debunkers of rumor and so-called urban legends, quickly hosted a Hurricane Katrina section []. Using its tried-and-true colored-dot rating system (green = true, red = false, yellow = undetermined, etc.), Snopes divided Katrina rumors and information into the following categories: charity, photos, crime, rumors, quotes, and several others.

Red Cross Scams

The Red Cross has taken its share of heat over its handling and channeling of funds. A highly critical Los Angeles Times article (“The Red Cross Money Pit,” Richard M. Walden) makes several damning points: that the Red Cross received 70 percent of Katrina funds; it is reimbursed for shelters, food, etc. by the federal government; it relies overwhelmingly on unpaid volunteers; and it spends over $111 million a year in fund raising. Quoting Walden, “The Red Cross expects to raise more than $2 billion before Hurricane Katrina-related giving subsides. If it takes care of 300,000 people, that’s $7,000 per victim. I doubt each victim under Red Cross care will see more than a doughnut, an interview with a social worker and a short-term voucher for a cheap motel, with a few miscellaneous items such as clothes and cooking pots thrown in.” In addition, it sells donated blood for around $1.5 billion annually. His obvious question is, “Where does the money go?” The article [,1,5469775.story?ctrack=1&cset=true] makes for fascinating reading.

As we went to press, the Red Cross was undergoing an internal investigation to examine reports of improper use of funds and goods that could total in the millions of dollars. Louisiana Attorney General Charles C. Foti Jr. has also launched an investigation after learning of the Red Cross inquiry. Two supervisors were fired in late March 2006 as part of an internal Red Cross inquiry into the improper handling of relief supplies.

Regardless of internal difficulties, the Red Cross remains a huge bull’s-eye for scammers. One common scam involves e-mails that reputedly come from the Red Cross or agencies working with the Red Cross. The Red Cross states on its Web site that it does use e-mail for solicitation, but only to solicit previous donors and/or newsletter subscribers. Concerned about fraudulent e-mails from organizations that claim to collect donations for them, the Red Cross has listed its official donation sites at

Guidestar [] is an excellent site for validating a nonprofit’s status and reputation. In addition to numerous data sets, it hosts a database and search engine of organizations contributing directly to the Katrina relief effort.

The Chicago-based American Institute of Philanthropy [], a nationally prominent charity watchdog service, rates charities on its Web site, giving them letter grades (A–F). The site also contains a list of recommended Katrina relief organizations [].

The Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance [] also hosts a list of recommended charities [].

The Blame Game

The response of state and federal officials to Hurricane Katrina left many people stranded in New Orleans with inadequate supplies and lengthy waits for rescue. At the time of this writing, 6 months after Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, citizens of the area are scattered throughout the U.S., many without housing or jobs, while reconstruction efforts and planning for the next hurricane season grind slowly on. Much has been made of what the Bush administration knew and when and why the rescue effort and response was so slow and ineffective. As federal and state officials engage in a blame game, real people suffer for officials’ decisions and lack of planning.

One of the more interesting e-mail exchanges to occur as Katrina made landfall was between Marty Bahamonde, FEMA’s New England regional director, who ended up stranded in the New Orleans Superdome, and Michael Brown, then-FEMA director, and other FEMA staff. Though Bahamonde’s was one of the few official voices to recount what was happening to stranded survivors in New Orleans, the e-mails show a clear disconnection between FEMA’s response and the reality of the situation. Mr. Bahamonde sent an e-mail reporting the 17th Street Canal levee break on Aug. 29, yet his supervisors in Washington as well as Homeland Security Secretary, Michael Chertoff, claim to have not learned about the levee break and flooding until Aug. 30. This level of disinformation occurred despite having a federal official on the ground with the ability to send e-mails from a BlackBerry hand-held device. Copies of the e-mails can be accessed at

The Bahamonde e-mails point to an endemic communication failure between people on the ground during a developing situation and decision makers far removed from the situation, decision makers empowered to guide and direct rescue personnel and resources. Despite a stated desire to improve first responder capabilities and subsequent recovery efforts post-9/11, the Katrina experience has illuminated a dark corner of our nation’s ability to respond to and cope with disasters, whether natural or man-made.

In early March 2006, a video was released of government briefings a day before Katrina made landfall, which provided fresh evidence that the Bush administration knew how serious Katrina would be. Despite these briefings, the federal response was inadequate and slow. As an aspect of the blame game, the video is open to interpretation, with both critics and supporters of the Bush administration using it as evidence that too little or just enough was done. What the video does demonstrate, however, is that, despite disaster projections and apparently good lines of communication between the White House and the Department of Homeland Security, poor decisions were made, resulting in unnecessary loss of life and suffering.

As this article was heading to press, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs released a report, entitled “Hurricane Katrina: A Nation Still Unprepared,” that targeted President Bush and his administration for their inaction while Katrina made landfall, the Homeland Security Department for its inability to follow federal disaster plans, and the city of New Orleans for its lack of emergency preparation. The report concluded that “almost exactly four years after 9/11, Katrina showed that the nation is still unprepared to respond to a catastrophe.” PDF files of the report’s sections, including the Executive Summary, Findings, and Recommendations, can be found at the Committee’s Web site [].

Lessons for the Future

From the Iraq War to the Indian Ocean tsunami to Hurricane Katrina, alternative modes of communications, especially those typified by blogs, wikis, online maps, and other digital resources, continue to evolve and actively respond in proactive, cooperative, and beneficial ways.

Hurricane Katrina demonstrated the necessity of robust, functioning communications systems during a time of emergency response, as well as demonstrating how fragile many of our communications systems are, and the negative impacts that the loss of communications and miscommunications can have on people’s lives. Bad information, poor decision making, and delayed rescue responses resulted in the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of people. In the aftermath of Katrina, while the federal and state governments tried to place the blame on one another, scores of community organizations stepped up to fill in the gap of basic human services that were sadly lacking. These organizations continue to perform their heroic and needed work in a part of our country that will likely remain devastated for years to come. Although these organizations are performing a vital function, we should ask ourselves why the gap they fill exists in the first place. We citizens need to open and maintain lines of communication with our government to assure that the next disaster is handled differently.

Future Disaster-Resistant Communication

A citywide Wi-Fi mesh is a self-correcting network of Wi-Fi antennas that could work together to provide communications backup during a disaster. Centralized telephone system switches can result in large blackouts if damaged and are easily overwhelmed if more than 10 percent of the population tries to talk at the same time, a distinct possibility during any large scale disaster. For example, cell phone circuits were overtaxed during the New York City blackout of 2003. During Hurricane Katrina, flooding destroyed underground phone lines and high winds tore down cell phone towers; the power grid for large areas of the Gulf Coast was also affected, denying electricity to phone systems.

Because a Wi-Fi network is decentralized, inexpensive, and low power, it can back up phone system during a disaster. A group of Wi-Fi nodes built onto houses or buildings could share a connection to the Internet, as well as handle VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) phone calls. Because of its decentralized construction, the collapse of any single node won’t result in the collapse of the entire network; another node will simply work around the missing node. In high-density cities, a network of such nodes on every building could ensure enough redundancy for almost any situation. The nodes are also small and durable, less likely than cell phone towers to be effected by high winds. Though still vulnerable to loss of power (though a backup battery could keep each node running for days), these meshes offer a viable alternative to a more vulnerable phone system and present a realistic way to maintain communications with rescue services and the outside world. The Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology [] is already hooking up households with Wi-Fi meshes in Chicago; it helped set up a Wi-Fi node in Rayville, Louisiana, to help Katrina survivors get online.

Over the objections of cable and phone companies, New Orleans has already begun to take steps toward installing and running a free municipal Internet system based on Wi-Fi technology in order to stimulate growth and to attract businesses and people back to the city over the objection­s of phone and cable companies. The citywide network will also provide secure communications for police and fire departments and could serve as a robust communications system during the next hurricane season.

Community Response (E-Mail Interviews)

The response of local communities around the Gulf Region has been both necessary and effective. Staffed mostly by volunteers, these community organizations have stepped up to fill a vacuum left by inadequate state and federal responses. We conducted e-mail interviews about communication problems with the Common Ground Health Clinic [] (part of the Common Ground Collective, []), which forwarded our initial e-mail on to other local clinics and community organizations. Our questions and their answers follow:

Noah Morris, an EMT, street medic, and co-founder of the Common Ground free clinic.

At both the local, state and federal levels, what did you see as some major communications breakdowns before, during, and after Katrina?

As soon as we entered Mississippi, cell phones were often not going through with messages, saying due to the increased volume and destruction of numerous pieces of equipment due to the storm they could not connect our calls. Numerous people we met on the way down seemed under the impression that everyone had been evacuated, which was far from true. At no point was everyone evacuated. The various government agencies did not seem to be coordinating much at all and often exhibited open hostility to each other. This was particularly evident between NOLA [New Orleans, Louisiana] cops and the National Guard. I have been also told that the local, parish, and state police, as well as EMS and fire, were all operating on a single radio channel. 911 was down and so were most landlines. We almost always had to try a number numerous times (four–12) before it would go through. There was only one radio station and it was at the disposal of the government-led efforts and often gave out incorrect info.

How did these communication breakdowns affect your organization and the people you serve?

The government and major aid agencies caused undue suffering from the general lack of communication between agencies. Also the false reporting about the levels of violence caused many aid workers to be prevented from gaining entry into the disaster zone. We ourselves had to bluff our way through checkpoints just to get to the un-flooded West bank. On multiple occasions, the Red Cross had one of their own nurses arrested. He was working at their Covington shelter and had been given permission to haul some acutely needed medications such as Rx’s for hypertension and diabetes. Also the generally racist attitude that prevented people from traveling to the only open hospitals for assistance. The cell phones didn’t challenge us nearly as much as the lack of communication between and within the government/NGOs that kept bothering us with the same 20 questions.

Are any of these breakdowns still ongoing?

There is perhaps an even smaller attempt to “play well with others” between the various private and public agencies still working on the reconstruction efforts. The lack of healthcare for uninsured people is a major problem still, with thousands having lost health insurance, as well as everything else. FEMA continues to hand out outdated information and very little hard help.

James M. Deshotels, SJ APRN, vice president for mission, Daughters of Charity Services of New Orleans

At the local, state, and federal levels, what did you see as some major communications breakdowns before, during and after Katrina?


• Failure to evacuate

• Failure to provide means of evacuation for people who didn’t have them

• Failure to recruit more help for shelters & hospitals

During & After

• Loss of mobile phone services because towers were down

• Loss of all communication infrastructure

• Lack of communication and coordination between and within branches of government (See House Select Committee Report on the Federal Response to Katrina; it’s on the Web)

• Excess of BS generated without foundation, spread by rumor, and spread nationally by CNN and Fox News. Whatever they heard, however unreliable the source (including, unfortunately, our own chief of police), they reported it.

I must say that the people on the ground — City of New Orleans, LA Dept. of Health & Human Services, National Guard, volunteers — were excellent. We communicated the hard way: We ran around the Superdome, found each other, and got to the bottom of things. But every time we turned around, somebody above the ground (above General Lupin, Dr. Fred Cerise, Dr. Kevin Stevens, Mayor Nagin) changed the story. So we’d move a bunch of patients to one place, ready for evacuation, and then have to move them someplace else. No communication to the general population in the stadium, except by word of mouth and rumor (and I’m told some really bad theology at the top of various preachers’ lungs during the nights).

How did these communication breakdowns affect your organization and the people you serve?

They led to more uncertainty and anxiety for the patients and families. As I recall I spent almost 5 days reciting a couple of themes. The first was priorities: First we keep you alive, then we get you safe, then we work on health and meds, then we work on comfort. The second was the evacuation spiel: Your house is probably gone; you can’t leave here; you need to decide what’s really important to take with you on the bus or chopper; etc.

A paradigmatic story: we had a 600-pound lady in the special needs unit. Her family consisted of her mother, in a wheelchair, her sister, relatively disabled, and her 12-year-old niece, who was holding the family together. We sent our 600-pound lady up to the helipad three times (that I know of), and each time she was returned in a weaker state. Finally I went to the helipad to ask what was going on and learned they couldn’t put her on a helicopter. So I found the guys in charge of the Guard Unit and they agreed to take her out on the last 2.5-ton truck with six or eight soldiers to help with the lifting. Then I went back to explain to the 12-year-old niece, who told me, “You all just don’t want to take care of her ’cause she big.” I said, “Actually, I do. And you don’t want to hear this from an old white guy, but here’s what’s going on . . . .” Then we had a meeting of minds. And then she had to decide which dependent relative she would evacuate with. (I think she went with the grandma because grandma was a little demented and would need advocacy.) What a great child!

Later, we had communication breakdown within my organization — I work for the local affiliate of Ascension Health. Finally my boss and I just started doing what we could here, and I worked with the New Orleans Health Dept. until Ascension Health made decisions about what to do next since our clinic here flooded.

Are any of these breakdowns still ongoing?

No, thank God. One of my strategic objectives this year was to get to know the health department better. No better way than working with them in the Dome. And they were amazing, as were the National Guard soldiers and the LA Department of Health and Hospitals. I’ve been working with heroes for the last 6 months and it’s what makes this possible at all.

Internet ScamBusters

Here is a list, used by permission of site creators Jim and Audri Lanford, of scams rampant after Hurricane Katrina.

1. Phishing scams: As described above, many fraudulent websites have already been set up pretending to be legitimate Hurricane Katrina relief organizations. These sites request charitable donations, but in fact steal financial information and may be used for identity theft as well. Contributions, of course, go into the pockets of the scammers rather than to help people who desperately need it. For example:

Please donate to Hurricane Relief Efforts. We have seen the horrible destruction this past week that was caused by natural causes. Our hearts and prayers go out to those affected by Hurricane Katrina. If you’d like to help we encourage you to make a generous donation to the American Red Cross. Thank You for your compassion.

[bogus but legitimate sounding domain name listed here]

2. Viruses and trojans: Spam is sent that includes photos of disaster areas or individual survivors, and these attachments contain computer viruses. For example, the Trojan, Cgab, is now related to a Hurricane Katrina email that is making the rounds. It provides full access to the victim’s PC. According to CNN Money, the email headlines include: “Re: g8 Tropical storm flooded New Orleans” and “Re: g7 80 percent of our city underwater.”

3. Variants of the Nigerian fee scam: unsolicited email (spam) is sent with the supposed purpose of retrieving large amounts of money tied up in areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina. We were surprised that it took over a week to start seeing these scams. Here is one example:



Dear Beloved Sister & Brother In Christ,

I am Mrs [name deleted] from Netherlands. I am married to Dr. [name deleted] who worked with an oil servicing company in Gambia. It is by the grace of God that I received Christ through a crusade programme in Gambia ,knowing the truth and the truth have set me free. I had no choice than to do what is lawful and right in the sight of God for eternal life and in the sight of man for witness of God´s mercy and glory upon my life. We were married for twenty-seven years without a child. He died during a youth riots in one of the oil flow station region. He was held hostage and slain to death by protesting youths of the region. Before his death we were both Living Christians. My late husband acquired a considerable sum of money through his resourcefulness and effectiveness during his stay in Gambia. These money are currently lodged in a finance institution in Europe. I am desperately in need of your assistance and guidance in the dispatch of these money for the sole purpose of ameliorating the suffering of thousands of sick, poor and down trodden individuals ecumenically, especially victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, USA. I was recently diagnosed with cancer of the lungs and the doctors have made it absolutely lucid that this disease is terminal. The doctors were not exact about how long I have to live but I am in the know that the disease has ravaged my body and left me at the mercy of endless cocktail of drugs been administered to me. The drugs have gone a long way in alleviating the pains, but I still feel my life gradually ebbing away. I do not have any existing family member to assist me in procuring these money before the stipulated time. I established this contact with you solely out of need and desperation, concern for victims in distress. I will ask that you inform me of your decision to assist or decline, please ensure that you make your decision based on nobility and humanity. Your assistance will remain forever invaluable and beneficial to thousands of children across the world. Please assure me that you will act accordingly as I stated herein.

I await your urgent reply.

Yours in Christ,


4. Investment and security scams: According to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), emails are making the rounds that tout specific stocks on the basis of activity related to Hurricane Katrina. For example, one email says that investors could more than double their money in just days on certain penny stocks because of “refinery glitches.”

5. Misleading emails trying to take advantage of the disaster to sell unrelated products: Here’s an example of an email that was just trying to sell Viagra:

Subject: Re: 80 percent of our city underwater.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said Tuesday that Hurricane Katrina killed as many as 80 people in his state and burst levees in Louisiana flooded New Orleans.

Just before daybreak Tuesday, Katrina, now a tropical storm, was 35 miles northeast of Tupelo, Miss., moving north-northeast with winds of 50 mph. Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center said the amount of rainfall has been adjusted downward Monday.

Read More.. [Read More link went to a Viagra website]

6. Requests for individual donations to help their family members: The first spam message we saw of this type had two different spellings of the scammer’s first name!

Basically, these bogus requests usually look like this:

My [insert: brother, sister, family, parents, etc.] lost everything in Hurricane Katrina. Please send me money.

7. Hate websites: Sadly, a lot of hate websites are popping up that characterize the disaster as the “wrath of God” — and then they naturally ask people to donate to them.

8. Chain letters: The first email hoax was a request to forward the hoax because fifty cents would supposedly be donated to help victims for every copy of the email forwarded.

9. Scammers posing as officials from government agencies, banks, insurance companies, credit card companies, etc.: These scammers are claiming they will help victims in some way (such as help process their insurance claims more quickly). However, the goal of these scams is to steal bank, credit card, and/or other personal information in order to steal money and sometimes commit identity theft. So far we’re seeing this more offline than online, but it’s only a matter of time until these scams become more prevalent online.

10. Contractor scams: Contractors (or people pretending to be contractors) are asking for money up front to do repair work, and then not showing up to do the work. Again, these scams are showing up more offline than online, but they, too, will become more prevalent online.

11. Fee-based spam: unsolicited emails offer, for a fee, to locate loved ones who may be disaster victims.

Copyright Audri and Jim Lanford. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. Subscribe free to Internet ScamBusters [].

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