Silicon Insider: Katrina and the Webs

To understand the magnitude of that aftermath, the place to go was just as unlikely. Kathryn Cramer lives in Pleasantville, N.Y., with her husband and two kids, and makes her living as a noted editor of science fiction collections. Her site kathryncramer.com is normally a typical Web journal of a well-educated, liberal, Northeastern mom -- family photos, stories about daily life, recipes, and occasional asides about the environment.

But, in pursuing her own curiosity about the larger, environmental impact of Katrina on the Gulf Coast, she seemed to uncover in herself a kind of genius for topographical explanation. Her site (increasingly with the help of readers) began to marshal images from old satellite photos, Google, recent aerial shots, and breaking images from news stories, to create what is the most compelling narrative around on the sheer, jaw-dropping magnitude of the geographic transformation caused by Katrina.

While the networks were still talking about the New Orleans' levee breaks, Cramer actually showed them, comparing the sites with older aerial photos. And while newspapers talked about the extensive changes to the coastline caused by Katrina's storm surge, Cramer gave us satellite before-and-afters -- showing changes so staggering that even maps will have to be changed.

So useful were Cramer's images that many turned up in places, such as conservative and libertarian sites, that she probably has never heard of, and certainly would not approve. And yet, even she would probably agree that, as knowledge is power, getting those pictures out to everybody and educating people across the political spectrum will be crucial as officials confront decisions on recovery and rebuilding.

By Tuesday, the blogosphere was buzzing, filled with rumor, commentary, and most important, links to the on-the-ground stories coming out of the mainstream media, notably the superb work (under unimaginable pressure) of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. At almost every twist and turn of the story, the Web was hours ahead of the rest of the media.

For example, on Tuesday night, while cable news was still listing the number of dead on the Gulf Coast in the dozens, the arch-conservative site Free Republic carried a posting by a regular Freeper, 'My Favorite Headache,' who said he had just heard from an old buddy, a paramedic called on duty in Gulfport, Miss., who said that he was pulling bodies out of trees and homes "30 at a time" and estimated the losses could be in the thousands.

This set off an avalanche of postings -- numbering more than 2,000 by Wednesday morning -- ranging from prayers for the lost, to conspiracy theories, to outright skepticism that those numbers couldn't possibly be true. Needless to say, within hours, statements by both the mayor of New Orleans and emergency officials in Mississippi and Alabama suggested those dire predictions might well be correct.

Also on Tuesday, the most influential blog of all, Instapundit.com, run by University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds, essentially converted itself into a clearinghouse, not just for blogs writing about Katrina, but more importantly, as the go-to site for Katrina relief organizations. What made this list particularly valuable (beyond the hundreds of thousands of people it would reach) was that it included not just the big aid organizations getting attention on network news, but smaller groups, closer to the disaster, capable of getting help in fast.

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