Past and future memories of Katrina

Future Tense for Mar. 29, 2007

By Steve Welker

Two years ago today, Aug. 29, I watched Hurricane Katrina bear down on the Gulf Coast and tear apart Louisiana and Mississippi while thousands of people fled their homes. And then, on Tuesday, I saw the first reports of levees collapsing, the waters rising in New Orleans, looters breaking down doors and people’s growing fears that they might drown.

I wasn’t watching television.

This news all came across the Internet.

And the most compelling stories, the most shocking photos and the most heart-wrenching, emotional appeals weren’t on Google News or Yahoo.

The news was in blogs.

Mathematician and psychologist Jorn Barger coined the word “weblog” in 1997. He described it as a running record of things he discovered or thought about while surfing the Internet. It’s a familiar concept — pilots log their hours, ham radio operators log their contacts, system administrators log glitches on their networks — but Jorn wrote his log directly to a page on the World Wide Web where anyone could read it.

Twenty months later, in August 1999, Pyra Labs started Blogger, a service that offered tools and space on the Web so anyone could start a blog (Paul Merholz gets the credit, or, in some people’s opinion, the blame for coining the guttural, contracted version of “weblog” that people now use interchangeably as a noun or verb).

Blogs became popular in part because anyone with access to a computer and the Internet could claim a place on the Web, free and easy, with no need to register a domain name or to buy and learn complicated software. Google, which bought Blogger in 2003, continues to offer blog space at Blogspot.com. Other popular services include LiveJournal and Xanga.

Traditional journalists have had a love-hate relationship with blogs, especially ones that purport to report “news,” but do so with a pronounced right- or left-wing bias. However, it’s hard to argue with the blogs’ immediacy; after all, that’s what TV news does all the time with its on-the-spot, “live-remote” broadcasts from fires, accident scenes and other disasters. Today, more newspapers and TV stations have added staff-written blogs to their Web pages. North Carolina’s own Greensboro News & Record -- most particularly its editor, John Robinson -- is a leader in the field.

On Monday and Tuesday two years ago, I kept the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s breaking-news blog (http://www.nola.com/newslogs/breakingtp/) in an open window on my browser.

At 9:40 a.m. Tuesday, after struggling for almost 12 hours to continue reporting from the scene after their building lost emergency backup power, the newspaper staff posted this message:

“The Times-Picayune is evacuating its New Orleans building. Water continues to rise around our building, as it is throughout the region. We want to evacuate our employees and families while we are still able to safely leave our building. Our plan is to head across the Mississippi River on the Pontchartrain Expressway to the west bank of New Orleans and Jefferson Parish. From there, we'll try to head to Houma.”

The Times-Picayune reporters posted nothing else on their blog until 4:20 p.m.

I had a hard time concentrating on my work here while wondering whether they safely escaped the flooding city.

The Times-Picayune and other media set up blog sites where “citizen journalists” could post stories and photos. I could check out the Times-Picayune site at http://www.nola.com/caught/; MSNBC’s at http://www.msnbc.com/id/9076525/; WWL-TV’s at http://www.wwltv.com/weather/pix/; and, from Florida, the Sun-Sentinel’s hurricane blog at http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/weather/weblog/hurricane. At Technorati.com, a site that indexes millions of blogs, I typed in “New Orleans” and got more than 212,000 posts.

Now stop and think for minute. How do people update those blogs? Some use cell phones and modems. Some have direct broadband connections separate from telephone lines. Some have satellite service (if they still have power or generators). But all of these messages must flow through Internet switching centers and New Orleans has a big one.

Therein is a tale.

On the Friday before Katrina struck, DirectNIC assembled a small team of volunteers on the 10th and 11th floors of a 27-floor office building in downtown New Orleans. They had one mission: to keep the main Internet junction alive. They stockpiled water and food. They found diesel fuel for their generators. It is supposed to be a secure facility, but they obtained guns and ammunition, too.

When Katrina hit, the building swayed, but Outpost Crystal (named for one member’s fiancee, who stayed with them) kept the Internet up and running. They also started a blog and posted constant updates, digital photos and live webcam video to show the world the scene in downtown New Orleans.

On Tuesday, after the levees broke, they realized they were in danger. At 5 p.m., Michael Barnett posted this blog entry:

“OK, the looting is getting nuts out there. The water is creeping, but very slowly. I’ve got the (webcam) feed aimed at the street where it’s coming from, and you can sort of see it. It looks like a shadow on the street right now.

“...Let me just say that I am very optimistic. The city can descend into chaos for a little while, but eventually order will develop. Sure, it looks bleak, but we’ll work through it.

“I have a lot of people telling us to abandon ship and get out. Guys, that’s not gonna happen. I’ll eat roaches and drink the funky Quarter sludge in the gutters of Bourbon Street long before I abandon my city. I’ve got resources and will and so does my team, and we’re here until this is over.”

And he added this at 6:41 p.m.:

“My team’s mood is not negative. We’re focused. We’ve got things that need doing and we’re gonna get them done. That’s all there is to it. We need diesel. We’ll find some. We have people depending on us and we are not going to let them down. That’s all there is to it.

“We’re preparing for the worst, we know things are going to get worse — a lot worse — before they get better, but we’re positive and we’re gonna fight through this and win. Period.”

Throughout the past week, Barnett updated the blog constantly while he and the others struggled to find diesel and fuel their generators, to cope with personal hygiene, to overcome their apprehensions (Barnett did not learn until Sunday that his father survived and reached safety), to chronicle the widening disaster and to sort out facts from rumors.

They evacuated one team member due to medical problems. Those who stayed behind are Barnett, Sigmund Solares (one of DirectNIC’s owners), Donny Simonton, Brian Acosta and Ms. Coleman.

You can find their blog still preserved at http://interdictor.livejournal.com/?skip=280.

They originally named it “The Interdictor,” but now it’s called “The Survival of New Orleans Blog.”

Read it. Along with thousands of other personal stories from the Gulf Coast, it is an amazing example of how blogs will change the way we get news of the world now ... and in the future.



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