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Online reunion efforts overlap, confuse some

Although the Internet makes it simple for people around the world to help out with disaster relief, all the well-intentioned but largely duplicative people-finding efforts have led to confusion, frustration and wasted time.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Ritchie Priddy opted not to watch football last weekend, parking himself instead in front of his computer and entering data on Hurricane Katrina refugees who wound up in his small town of St. Francisville, La.

It took Priddy and three other volunteers from the First Baptist Church most of the weekend to post details online on about 500 refugees.

Each person’s data had to be typed in five times to populate just five of as many as 50 online databases and message boards created to connect those displaced by the disaster with loved ones.

“It’s incredibly slow when you have to input each one,” Priddy said. “What’s aggravating is they are not in the same format so it’s not like you can cut and paste.”

Although the Internet makes it simple for people around the world to help out with disaster relief, all the well-intentioned but largely duplicative people-finding efforts have led to confusion, frustration and wasted time.

“There really needs to be one place where people can go and get information,” said Trisha Denny, a Phoenix resident who has primarily used to check on loved ones in Ocean Springs, Miss. “There’s always the possibility that somebody I knew and cared about has posted somewhere else.”

The Internet may free information from the grips of centralized hands, said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, “but at some point it’s terribly useful to have a centralized, responsible, trusted clearinghouse.”

But who?

The Red Cross believes its Family Links Registry, previously used during civil wars abroad and the Asian tsunami, can perform that role. By Wednesday, more than 117,000 entries had been submitted by people seeking a loved one or reporting that they are safe, and many more people visited the site to conduct searches.

“Our Web site is so widely known and so heavily used that I think it’s got a momentum of its own,” said Sara Blandford, manager of international family tracing services at the American Red Cross.

The site even has the blessing of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Nonetheless, the U.S. Department of Justice turned to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children when it wanted a database for refugee children and parents.

Having worked for years with local law enforcement agencies, the nonprofit organization was glad to build a database that, unlike the Red Cross’, has room for photos and the types of physical attributes familiar to police.

And then there’s the National Next of Kin Registry, a nonprofit group that is willing to work with relief organizations but can’t share data directly for privacy and security reasons, spokesman John Hill said. Its database isn’t publicly searchable.

Media organizations such as CNN and MSNBC have also created databases, as did the Web-only

Ken Burton, information systems technical director at GulfCoastNews, said he programmed the tool after seeing the site’s message boards flooded with posts that weren’t easily searchable.

“I was putting it up to fill a need,” said Burton, whose database was up two days before the Red Cross’s and now has more than 60,000 names, some overlapping with others.

Some companies and groups have tried to consolidate the data, but those efforts also overlap.

Search engine company Lycos Inc. wrote tools to search across multiple databases and message boards for Katrina’s displaced, while Web database developer Yes Software Inc. is extracting data from some databases and combining them at

Individuals from around the world are collaborating through to create a combined database as well, with volunteers manually entering information gleaned from message boards at Yahoo and elsewhere.

In the months to come, inevitable is a lessons-learned meeting “where the right folks would come together (to discuss) who’s best designed to do which piece of the puzzle,” said John Rabun, chief operating officer at National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Criticism is easy in retrospect, said Patrick McPherson of the Salvation Army, which has a database of about 500 shelter occupants.

“You learn as you go, and you make decisions related to the information you have in the current time frame,” he said. “If you know what was going to happen beforehand, you would do it a little differently.”