screengrab of Nola.com's missing persons forum
The message boards of Nola.com are crammed with people looking for friends and family.
By
msnbc.com
updated 9/2/2005 11:47:55 AM ET 2005-09-02T15:47:55

"SHE'S ONLY 2," the message reads. "If any information on Veronique Verrett is known please contact us." A long series of phone numbers and other contact information follows in this note posted Tuesday to the message boards of the Nola.com Web site.

Veronique is Jakouri Williams' goddaughter. He says he last talked to the girl's mother — his cousin  — at 3 p.m. central time on Sunday, as Hurricane Katrina drew near. His cousin had decided to ride out the storm with other family in East New Orleans, and at that point, regretted the choice. 

But that's all Williams knows. Since then, the telephone has been useless, and Williams has no idea what became of his family. So like thousands of other people around the country, Williams has turned to the Internet for help. But so far, he hasn't heard anything.

In a scene eerily similar to the aftermaths of Sept. 11, and the Asian tsunami, a series of Web sites have quickly formed aimed at helping concerned family and friends find loved ones left missing by Hurricane Katrina. For those frustrated by downed telephone lines and a lack of information offered by agencies helping victims in the area, the Internet has become a method of last resort.

People posting the messages offer working phone numbers, e-mail addresses and pictures of friends, hoping someone with information might see the notes and call or send an e-mail.

Collectively, there are already well over 1,000 posts on about a dozen sites, each crammed with heartbreaking stories. Some of these Web sites are long-established ones such as Craigslist or Nola.com, which is affiliated with The Times-Picayune, New Orleans' daily newspaper. Other Web sites, with names such as HurricaneKatrinaSurvivors.com, have sprung up ad hoc to help survivors find each other.

Donna Boykins is searching for her son, Anthony Bernard Boykins, who was incarcerated in a county jail on Perdido Street in New Orleans.

"I haven't heard what they did with the inmates," she said. "I just know the whole city is a disaster area."

So Boykins went online to search for answers, and posted a note on the message boards of NowPublic.com, a user-driven news site. Soon after, she heard from a news reporter who pointed her to a photograph of inmates on a highway overpass in New Orleans. But it provided little comfort: The picture wasn't detailed enough for Boykins to pick out her son. Her search continues.

A human face
Michael Tippett, CEO of NowPublic.com, says he was in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, and remembered all the frantic Web site posts after the attack. His site is generally devoted to posts about current events, but he set up a special Katrina Missing Persons section over the weekend, anticipating the problems Katrina might bring.

"I knew it would be a painful process to go through, but at least it’s given people an opportunity to reconnect with people who have gone missing," Tippett said. "It really puts a human face on something so incalculably large."

Most of the 100 to 200 people who've posted to the site were still looking for answers as of late Tuesday, Tippett said.

But there was at least one happy ending. Orlando Rodriguez, who had posted to the site looking for his friends Armando and Librada Fandino of Kenner, La., posted again late Tuesday to pass along the good news that the family had safely made their way to Shreveport.

Some people turning to the Internet are themselves survivors of the hurricane, posting "I'm OK" messages to let family and friends know they are in a safe place. Dana Harrison-Tidwell lives in the New Orleans' French Quarter, and hadn't planned to leave before the storm, as she was only days away from moving to Las Cruces, N.M. But she received a last-minute e-mail from a friend who happens to be a meteorologist over the weekend, and he convinced her to get out.

"He said, 'this is nothing to fool around with,' " she said. So she left, and posted a message to one of the check-in sites. She titled her message: "Made it to Birmingham."

Harrison-Tidwell made it to Birmingham, but she left behind all her belongings neatly packed in boxes for transport. She's worried they'll be easy prey for looters. "I may not have anything when I get back, whenever that is," she said.

Matt Drachenberg runs a popular current events blog called "Overtaken by Events." He spent more than 24 hours without any news about his mother-in-law, who lives in a nursing home in New Orleans. He posted several notes on his site asking for help contacting the place, or to find out about flooding conditions near her residence. 

"If anyone has any information about the conditions in Metarie near Oschener Hospital, I'd be incredibly appreciative if you'd post the comments," he wrote.

He did get through to nursing home administrators once via cell phone, who told him his mother-in-law was healthy and made it through the storm. He shared the good news on his blog: "She was not lost, but now she is found."

But that was almost 24 hours ago, and last Drachenberg heard, all the residents were set to be transferred out of the home to a safer area.  He hasn't heard anything since about the move, and he doesn't know where his mother-in-law is right now.

Most Internet searchers find themselves equally in the dark.

Craigslist traffic soars
Craigslist, the popular online community bulletin board and local classified ad network, is perhaps the most popular place to search for information on the missing. CEO Jim Buckmaster said there were over 700 posts in the New Orleans "Lost and Found" section by Tuesday night — normally, there are only one or two posts per day. There are hundreds more posts in the volunteers section, with people making offers of free housing, or even free phone calls.

"It's very reminiscent of the role our site played on 9-11," he said. The Internet is well suited to help in chaotic times because posting and reading information is instantaneous, Buckmaster said.

Of course, it's only useful for those who have Internet access at the moment. In the areas hardest hit by the storm, Net access is a luxury possessed by few. And even those with access may have to search through several Web sites.

Robert Baum, of Woodland Hills, Calif., is trying to find out about Earl and Yvonne Schmitt, cousins who live on Opelousa Avenue in New Orleans.

"We tried calling, that didn't work. So we figured we'd give the Web site a try," he said. "Too bad there isn't just one site everybody can get to. I can put the note on one page, but it's useless unless you put it on all of them, and someone sees it."

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments