Want to file for aid online? Better run Windows

The good news: If you've survived Hurricane Katrina, the government will let you register for help online. The bad news: But only if the computer you're using is running Windows.

Yes, it turns out that to make a claim with the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Individual Assistance Center, your Web browser must be Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 6 or higher and you must have JavaScript enabled. It even says so right on the page itself. One problem: IE6 isn't available for Macintosh or Linux computers.

Complaints about government Web sites requiring Microsoft software aren't new, of course. (MSNBC is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.) But this is one instance that struck particularly hard for some.

Mac user Gary Mullins wrote Monday on the MacInTouch Web site:

"My 90-year old mother sat out Katrina in her brother’s home next door in Diamondhead, MS, about eight miles from the Mississippi coast where the hurricane’s eye hit. They survived without injury but with massive destruction to their homes, and my mother has lost most of her possessions. I brought her to my home in California yesterday and this morning went to the FEMA website to register to start the assistance process. To my dismay, our Federal emergency agency requires Microsoft Internet Explorer 6, and only IE 6, to use the website for disaster assistance. I don’t want to be political about this, but this smacks of a serious leadership failure that the use of the Internet is reserved for only the Windows community.”

When reached Tuesday afternoon, a FEMA spokeswoman said they were aware of the problem and had passed it along to their tech guys to try to resolve the issue. The spokeswoman I spoke with declined to venture a guess on when the problem might be solved, however.

I tried myself to access the FEMA site (http://www.fema.gov/register.shtm) using the latest version of Mozilla Firefox on a Windows PC, a brand new Mac mini and a Linux laptop. No luck.  Whenever I got close I was directed to a page which told me to try again later or “We are sorry for not being able to proceed your requests because you have failed our tests.” Trying with Opera, Netscape or Safari wasn’t any better.

If you’re running Mac OS X, you could run Virtual PC 7 and then access Windows and Internet Explorer. Some people also have been having some success using Firefox and the User Agent Switcher extension and setting it to IE6. I tried this and was able to get a little further in the process, but stopped before actually having to fill out a form. I’ll leave that to those who really need help.

At this time, I’d say the safest way for non-Windows users to register for assistance is to call FEMA directly at 1-800-621-FEMA (1-800-621-3362) or for the hearing/speech impaired at TTY: 1-800-462-7585. FEMA says the phone lines are staffed 24/7.