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Volunteers help evacuees get connected
19 September 2005

Austin, USA: For Hurricane Katrina evacuees still living in the Austin Convention Center, the Internet has provided a means to return toward life before the storm.

Evacuees have been using 50 public computers to retrieve and set up e-mail accounts, search for friends and family through a database on www.katrinalist.net, and search for jobs and housing in Austin. The Federal Emergency Management Agency coordinated e-mail registration. Volunteers who signed up through Austin Free-Net have been monitoring and assisting in these efforts.

A non-profit corporation established in 1995, Austin Free-Net helps community organizations launch free Internet-access sites for the public.

Children not in the Austin school system have been playing Tetris and other games at the convention center.

The computers are only equipped with Internet access, but Austin resident and volunteer Sandy Nichols said their existence has allowed many "joyful" family reunions.

"It's been invaluable," Nichols said. "Initially, when I was here last week, they had lists of helpful Web sites in the rooms where the computers were. Without a doubt, these people have been applying for benefits, calling employers and getting on with life."

At the convention center, 1,076 evacuees still remain, down from a peak of almost 4,000 last week.

Austin Free-Net financial manager Dale Thompson said a few computers have been removed due to the decreasing population, but all public computers are still available for use.

Scott McClain, who volunteered through Austin Free-Net, said the evacuees have dealt well with long lines and waits for services.

"Lines for FEMA were 30 or 40 [people] long and the servers were so busy that people couldn't get through," he said. "This caused people to have to be on the computers longer. They've been very patient, and they all seem very grateful to have the services."

Nichols said she has seen a decrease in computer usage.

"A lot of people have done what they can on computers," she said. "Last week all the areas were full. The numbers are definitely dwindling."

Televisions in the living area show mostly cartoons to keep the children occupied. For some adults, the Internet has become a source of news information.

"We have sometimes been updating people about the water levels that they're showing on the news," she said.

With Katrina's wrath felt along the Gulf Coast, the Internet has helped to connect the multitude of evacuees. Nichols said she didn't know the success rate of reunions, but said they were occurring "frequently."

Thompson said computers helped better manage the population by making it easier to replace wristbands.

"Evacuees got a wristband when they arrived," she said. "The number that was on that wristband was their access to services. We've been replacing wristbands, and we anticipate that the numbers of people here will continue to go down."