The Net Pulls Together on Tsunami Efforts

Friends and family desperate to learn the fate of loved ones thousands of miles away in South Asia are turning to the Internet to plead for news of those who survived the weekend's tsunami disaster -- and who didn't.

"My father, Leonel Rodrigues, Portuguese citizen, is missing. He was last seen holding on to a tree inside the Meridien Resort/Hotel in Khao Lak, Thailand," reads a message posted on a special missing persons Web page set up by the BBC. "He was wearing blue swimming trunks. Please help, please!" added Filipa Rodrigues of Macao, who posted the message.

On a similar message board at LonelyPlanet.com, an Englishwoman wrote: "I am desperately looking for my 19-year-old son called Eddie Gibson. ... He was backpacking around Cambodia and Thailand. I have not heard from him. He is fair, 6ft tall and blue eyes, with a scar on his right wrist."

In some cases, the Web can bring good news. At LonelyPlanet.com, a poster named "Trix" posted a plea for information on a friend who was in Thailand as part of the U.S. Peace Corps. Within minutes of her post, another blogger posted a reply, quoting from the official Peace Corps Web site that "all 84 volunteers serving in Thailand have been contacted and verified as safe."

Another poster on the BBC site was able to share the good news that he had learned that his mother, vacationing in the Maldives, was safe. "My thoughts go out to all those who like me spent a long time trying to contact my Mum and I hope you all have as much luck as me," wrote Alex Lye of Crawley.

In addition to established travel and news sites, countless blogs, or online diaries, have sprouted up to help Web users locate missing friends and relatives.

However, most of the postings go unanswered, or -- worse yet -- get news that can't be confirmed. One anonymous poster at a blog site said she had managed to locate a friend at the Thai Muang hospital in Phang Nga, but couldn't verify if she was alive or dead.

Immediate and Intimate News

The blogs also provide first-person accounts of recovery efforts, and information on how to help.

The attraction to such sites has been astounding. At the newly created South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami blog, more than 100,000 visitors have been sharing information such as where to volunteer for recovery efforts and official phone numbers for foreign embassies in the tsunami-affected areas.

Its founder, a writer in Bombay, India, fears that such traffic could cripple SEA-EAT, which is hosted at a public Web site, tsunamihelp.blogspot.com. But other bloggers say they are ready to step in and host "mirror" sites so SEA-EAT's vital information is always available despite any online traffic jams.

Howard Rheingold, a computer industry luminary who was involved with the first electronic "bulletin board" systems in the mid-1980s, believes the rapid rise of online tsunami relief efforts is just the latest evolutionary stage of what he calls "smart mobs." These groups of individuals use the Internet and other communications devices like cellphones to quickly share information and spur action -- much like tech-savvy groups were able to rally support for candidates in the recent U.S. presidential elections.

"If you can smart-mob political demonstrations as what happened in the U.S. elections, you can smart-mob disaster relief," says Rheingold, author of "Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution." "It's the grassroots efforts at getting and distributing information."

Indeed, at some blogs, participants are giving the Net a glimpse of the disaster that would not be covered by other media outlets.

At ChiensSansFrontiers (desimediabitch.blogspot.com), eyewitnesses in Sri Lanka send in accounts of recovery efforts using SMS text messages from their cell phones. The latest entries told of a mass funeral pyre to dispose of 25 bodies in the coastal village of Mullaitivu.

"I wish I could go into detail about what I saw there, but I can't," wrote a poster known as Morquendi. "The smell there was worse than at the Karapitiya Hospital. But here I got used to it. After some time I couldn't feel it anymore. Later I realised I couldn't feel anything anymore."

More Organized Efforts

Rheingold says such intimacy in news and information is helping to fill a gap that traditional relief agencies and media outlets just can't handle right now.

"I think the really important stuff about all this, is that agencies are overwhelmed," says Rheingold. "If your cousin is alive and can get an SMS out that he's alive, that's important to you. But getting information out about [missing] people, that's secondary to people in immediate need of medical care now. And that's slightly less immediate to taking care of hygiene. And all that is stuff that they need to do."

That's why Rheingold believe that the Net has taken such a strong hold -- even among relief organizations themselves.

Save the Children reports that more than half of the $5 million the organization has received for tsunami relief efforts came from direct Web contributions. Online retailing giant Amazon.com has raised more than $5 million in contributions to the American Red Cross via its Web site.

In fact, some organizations were literally overwhelmed by the generosity of Web surfers.

"We did experience problems on our first day with our Web site," said Mark Melia, who directs fund raising for Catholic Relief Services. "Normally we receive less than a million dollars a year via our Web site and within the last two days, we've received already more than $2 million."

But for Rheingold, such efforts are just the beginning of the evolutionary steps the Net can bring to relief organizations.

"Getting money to people is important. But who knows where someone can get a truck to the airfield to get the supplies? That's important too," says Rheingold. "You're going to see efforts on people who have done this on an ad-hoc basic."

Rheingold says he personally knows of an acquaintance in Sri Lanka who has used the Net to arrange for just such logistical needs. "They're already mobilized to get relief, to get what they need to get where it needs to go so they hit the ground running."

"I think one important takeaway for the future is that this is a wake-up call for self-organized relief efforts," says Rheingold. "There is going to be more organized efforts to make it more effective."

Jim Hickey of ABCNEWS Radio contributed to this report.

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