Volunteers Restore Net Access for Katrina Victims

A week after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, some are turning their labors to restoring another vital piece of American life: access to technology and the Internet.

High-tech companies are stepping in to rebuild the digital communications and computer networks desperately needed by those in the hurricane-ravaged areas. Just one example -- Intel, Microsoft, Dell, SBC Communications and others have pledged money, equipment and personnel to create a wireless data network to help the American Red Cross link together hundreds of its evacuation centers.

While such networks will help coordinate relief efforts, other efforts are being made to hook up refugees. For the tens of thousands of evacuees now residing in the Astrodome sports complex in Houston, SBC has set up 1,000 telephone lines for free local and long-distance calling. It has also set up free high-speed Internet access through its SBC Yahoo! DSL service.

Smaller nonprofit organizations and individuals also are answering the call to provide Net access to survivors. At various technical Web sites, gangs of software developers, computer network specialists and high-tech volunteers are organizing to build large numbers of public Internet terminals that can be quickly deployed at the various evacuation centers scattered throughout the Gulf Coast region.

The key, say the Net activists: Using "open source" software -- programs that are collaboratively built and freely distributed online -- on old computers donated by individuals and companies.

Open Access Welcomed

And such unique approaches are already having a positive effect.

In McKinney, Texas, about 10 volunteers were able to set up 25 public access terminals in a Wal-Mart store now serving as a hurricane relief center for victims from New Orleans. The Web center was established using PCs donated by Hotels.com, based in nearby Dallas, and a high-speed wireless Internet connection provided by the new Wal-Mart store located across the street.

"We began receiving refugees this [Monday] morning around 10 a.m. By 10:30, we already had several people using the workstations to find relatives and loved ones," wrote volunteer John Leidel, in an e-mail to ABC News. "They're also being used to check the current news. Many of the people haven't heard radio or seen television broadcasts for quite some time. They are seeing the pictures from the devastation for the first time since they were evacuated."

Leidel, a software engineer, says that he and his fellow volunteers worked tirelessly throughout the weekend to set up the ad-hoc network. But he says the effort was well worth it.

"The medical station that has been set up inside was especially grateful. They have two of our stations in their area for checking in patients," wrote Leidel. "All in all, this has become a wonderful success. As one of the incoming refugees put it, 'This is the nicest place we've been [to] so far.'"

Simple and Free Software

A vital factor in establishing these Web centers quickly is due, in part, to the power the Internet has to bring together people and ideas in a collaborative manner.

Steven Hargadon, a software developer in Sacramento, Calif., says he and fellow open-source programmers came up with the idea of open-source terminals based on their years of experience in networking computers running Linux, an open-source operating system that proponents say is just as capable as Microsoft's Windows program.

"The technology is pretty simple and it's been available for some time," says Hargadon. "A working Web station would take no more than five minutes to set up, and requires no ongoing maintenance except in the case of hardware failure."

So after Hargadon saw Katrina's destruction, he collaborated with other Linux colleagues online to develop a special version of the software that can be easily copied onto blank CD-ROMs. Also included in the package was a customized version of the free Firefox Web browser which contained links to disaster relief information, news Web sites, and free e-mail services offered by Yahoo and Google.

The software is freely distributed on Web sites geared toward Linux developers and will work on computers as outdated as PCs with Pentium 2 microprocessors and no hard drives.

Collaborative Web Effort

Hargadon established a Web site -- PublicWebStations.com -- to promote the idea and raise the call for high-tech activism among other open-source advocates. But like the Net itself, Hargadon says there's no real centralized effort. Instead, word of the project is quickly making the rounds on technical Web sites where it is gathering steam among high-tech do-gooders.

At other sites, such as DesktopLinux.com and DIYParts.org, open source advocates are creating online forums to help organize terminal-building efforts at local relief centers. So if a volunteer in Baton Rogue, La., needs five old PCs, for example, he might post a request for it and other aid.

"Some of us … have computer equipment we want to get rid of. Some of us have media access. Some of us have programming skills. Some of us have bandwidth. Some of us contacts in the business community," says Christian Einfeldt, founder of DIYParts.org, which acts as an online clearing house for old computer parts and systems. "This is an opportunity to show the power of open source code and community."

Still, Einfeldt and others are quick to admit that even though the Web terminals can be built quickly, they still need ways to connect to electrical power and the Internet -- services that aren't readily available in the immediate flooded areas. And as such, public Web station advocates say the true impact of the project probably won't come about until much later.

"Basically, giving people the capability to communicate is critical, giving them e-mail is comfort. That is a second-tier need to food, water and medicine," says Hargadon. "I don't think we want to be anywhere near the front lines of recovery efforts right now. But later, when we're talking about people not having a home or any semblance of normal life for months at a time … just the idea that they could have access to the Net for free at an inexpensively built public terminal at a library or school or government center, that could significantly simplify their difficulties."