The Rev. Jay Dearman ministers to more than 3,000 Hurricane Katrina evacuees, fanned out in shelters and homes around his Lone Cherry Baptist Church in Mangham, La., normally population 200.
But on his Katrina missing persons Web site, churchofthe.net, his flock has grown to 80,000, a figure that climbs every day.
Among the postings are the Hendrix family's plea for news of their aunt: "We know that she left New Orleans and . . . was in Jefferson Parish. Her name is Jean Hendrix. She is 84 years old, wears hats and rides a bicycle (which she has with her)."
And there's Richard Orr Lile's message, looking for his uncle Richard: "We need to know if you and Aunt Martha is okay. You can call me. . . . We will come and get you until things settle down."
A less urgent-sounding post, from Linda, follows: "does anyone know David Oxmann, Metairie, La.?"
Seeking solace online
As if in a virtual Astrodome, thousands of people have gathered in cyberspace since the hurricane, sharing stories of loss, searching for signs of the missing and, it seems, seeking solace. On the largest Web sites, such as those run by the American Red Cross and Yahoo, the names of more than 200,000 people appear. Even more numerous are the people who are reading the entries -- Dearman estimated that his Internet-based log, one of some 200 such sites, gets 80,000 hits a day.
Whether the people named in the postings have perished or just slipped out of touch with friends and family remains, like the total number of dead, as yet unknowable. The sheer volume of postings -- and the disruption of communications in the hurricane-stricken region -- means that many of those being sought on the hundreds of Web sites will likely never see their loved ones' pleas.
But for the hundreds of thousands of people who enter Dearman's net-based church, who post on Craigslist or read through the New Orleans Times-Picayune's virtual newspaper site, reading the messages goes beyond their original purpose. They have become part of a global community concerned about the disaster's victims and looking for ways to help.
On nola.com, the Times-Picayune site: "GRANT MCGEHEE PLEASE CONTACT THE HOSPICE IN GEORGIA. Grant lives in a trailer park on sunset drive lot 34. his brother Thom is an a hospice in Georgia and he is dying. his sister is already there. . . . "
Nola.com is a site that functions like a Southern family, in which everybody seems to know everybody, or someone who knows them. From Sarahlee23, responding to a plea for word about Liz Gagnet: "I think that I may have found someone else that is looking for Elizabeth as well . . . the last name was spelled as GAGNT, though . . . but the first name was Elizabeth. The info was found on [this] Red Cross link . . . "
In just a few days, Craigslist went from a forum for finding dates, selling sports tickets and advertising yard sales to a Katrina town square, in which thousands of postings range from the plaintive to the cranky to the hopeful.
Says one: "If you are an ARAMARK employee or know of an ARAMARK employee who has been displaced in the wake of this tragedy, please contact ARAMARK to let us know your/their status. We are still unable to account for numerous employees from both the University of New Orleans and Delgado Community College and are deeply concerned. Let us know what you need. We want to help in any way we can."
Says another: "I can help you in any way I can with my phone. PLease email me if you need me to make calls for you. . . . FREE HELP. . . . I DO NOT WANT MONEY Dear Universe, PLease help all the people and the dogs and animals find comfort and shelter in this time of need. I extend my healing energy to all that needs it. I am from Buffalo, New York."
Still another: "FEMA IS NOT ON YOUR SIDE!! THE ENTIRE WORLD CAN SEE THAT THEY ARE CREATING ROADBLOCKS WHEN THEY SHOULD BE SCRAMBLING TO DO ANYTHING THEY CAN TO HELP! PLEASE WORK WITH LOCAL SHELTERS/VOLUNTEERS SUCH AS CHURCHES. . . ."
And occasionally, there's good news: "WWOZ DJ Louise 'Lou' Wehner found safe! HOORAY!"
Online 'clearinghouse' for the missing
Greg Boyles, 39, of Golden, Colo., patrols the Web sites frequently, not because he has lost anyone, but because he wants to help. Finding the missing persons section of Craigslist difficult to navigate, he converted his retailing Web site into a clearinghouse, cutting and pasting the listings, organizing and alphabetizing them.
"If I were looking for someone, I would be so frustrated," he said in a telephone interview, his voice cracking. He had considered taking his chain saw to the Gulf Coast to help clear debris. Then, after reading the Internet lists for the first time, "it struck me that this was something I could do."
Flattening cellular towers, downing phone lines and swamping underground cables, Katrina tore apart the technological underpinnings of more than 90,000 square miles of the South, destroying the means by which a modern society keeps track of itself.
Some of the missing appear to have been swept into a communications vacuum so vast they have yet to emerge. Marooned in darkened cities or shelters with scant communications, they are, in this nation of cell phones and computers and pagers, all but cut off.
Carmen Obianwu, 26, of Dallas knew this reality, but that didn't stop her from posting the names of 12 missing family members on a half-dozen Web sites. Not a single one of the relatives spotted the postings and responded, she said, but she did get plenty of calls from people who thought they knew her family, might have seen them or wanted to express their sympathy.
The storm left 100 people from her extended family, most from around New Orleans, homeless, she said. But they have all turned up.
"When you've lost all your stuff, you can't get on the Internet," she said. "We found people each day this week . . . but they just called."
The last to call, she said, "was my aunt. She never left New Orleans, and yesterday they finally forced her out. . . . Everybody's mad at her."
Staff writers Jacqueline L. Salmon and Lisa Rein contributed to this report.