Determining the fate of family members in the hours and days following a large-scale disaster can be one of the most agonizing problems people face. Phone and electrical services are often interrupted or overwhelmed, and family members may be evacuated to separate shelters.
This situation played out on a massive scale in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and brought about, through sheer necessity, a new generation of Web-based systems that reconnect families separated by future disasters. Katrina forced more than one million people from their homes, creating the nation's largest migration since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. According to the federal government, the disaster area was larger than the size of Great Britain. Communications broke down in hard-hit areas of Louisiana and Mississippi, making it difficult to find out what happened to family members. Further complications arose because some people took refuge not only in neighboring cities but were soon scattered to nearly every state in the nation.
Reuniting Victims of Katrina
Soon after Katrina struck New Orleans, the American Red Cross partnered with Microsoft Corporation and the San Diego Super Computer Center to create KatrinaSafe.org, a database designed to help families reconnect as they relocated across the country. This "super-list" contained hundreds of thousands of names submitted by family members or friends who were searching for loved ones. The database was built on an earlier system called the American Red Cross Family Links Registry for Hurricane Katrina which was launched by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The names in the database were submitted to the Red Cross online, by phone or through registries on other organizations' Websites that linked to KatrinaSafe.org.
"During disaster, nothing is more important to the public than to find out the welfare of their loved ones in the affected areas. Use of the Safe and Well website provided peace of mind to many individuals concerned about their loved ones during the Minnesota Bridge Collapse. Additionally, the use of the website greatly reduced the burden on the chapter responding to the disaster because it curtailed the number of calls relating to questions about the well-being of loved ones."
Welfare Information Reserve
Central Minnesota Chapter
Using KatrinaSafe.org, a person could conduct a single search to locate a family member. When the database made a match, the person searching received an e-mail or phone message with the sought family member's pre-disaster address and last known location.
Evacuees who wanted to notify family and friends of their status could go online or call a toll free hotline to select from standard messages that included "I'm alive" or "I'm looking for" inquiries.
People who registered at Red Cross shelters were automatically listed in KatrinaSafe.org unless they asked not to be listed. Because of privacy concerns, no location information was publicly displayed on the site. In the first several weeks after the site's launch, more than 340,000 registrations from separated families were posted.
New Name, Same Mission
Today, under its new name, Safe and Well, this invaluable online tool continues to reconnect families affected by disasters like the Minneapolis bridge collapse (686 posts and more than 10,000 searches), the May tornadoes in Kansas (423 registrations and more than 13,000 searches), and the tornadoes in Florida in February (521 registrations).
Today individuals who wish to notify friends and family of their status can now select from a whole range of prepared messages, from "I am safe and well" to "will make phone calls when able."
The Safe and Well Website is ready to use 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and is available in both English and Spanish. The key to the success of Safe and Well is advance planning. Before a disaster strikes your community or business (or family member), remember to make Safe and Well part of your disaster communications plan.
The American Red Cross helps people prevent, prepare for and respond to emergencies. Last year, almost a million volunteers and 35,000 employees helped victims of almost 75,000 disasters; taught lifesaving skills to millions; and helped U.S. service members separated from their families stay connected. Almost 4 million people gave blood through the Red Cross, the largest supplier of blood and blood products in the United States. The American Red Cross is part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. An average of 91 cents of every dollar the Red Cross spends is invested in humanitarian services and programs. The Red Cross is not a government agency; it relies on donations of time, money, and blood to do its work.