The following story was written by GCN senior contributing writer and Washington Correspondent Perry Hicks a week after Hurricane Katrina. This is the first time it is being published on GCN. The reason is that it tells the story of the GCN Katrina Connector-Survivor Database. This database, which was the first of its type after Katrina, was created to help people displaced from the hurricane to find each other. I felt that it just wasn't time to talk about GCN as the story was not about us, or GCN, but the people of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The database was used at emergency shelters around the region. The GCN Survivor-Connector Database received international news coverage after Katrina, and later, other media and the Red Cross created their own versions, but GCN was first. It is still operating and people are still using it, a year after Katrina.
At the year anniversary of Katrina, I felt many of our readers would want to know a little of what we at GCN went through to provide the reporting we have done, and the story of the database is part of that.
Following this story are two links to my first major reports on the aftermath posted on September 3, 2005 and September 8, 2005. This is the first time these stories have been relinked - Keith Burton- Owner and Editor of GCN
By Perry Hicks
…Clearly, a message for those that may be less fortunate in finding loved ones who need to know to "take heart," and not loose hope and have faith in the weeks and months ahead.
Judy Oxley- excerpt from an email to GCN
Just before Katrina’s wind and driving rain cut off communication, GCN publisher, Keith Burton, was posting eyewitness reports on how the storm was impacting his location:
“Lots of blue flashes of light around the city… those were transformers failing… The odor of broken trees is beginning to fill the air….the noise and stresses on the windows are disconcerting…The air is filled with debris…Tree limbs are breaking across the street from us…There is a constant roar easily heard inside the house... Trees are bending over sometimes at alarming angles….”
The bad news did not stop after the storm had passed. Over in New Orleans, a levy had been breached and water was pouring into the city. Those who were riding out the storm in the relative safety of the Superdome now found themselves cut off from their homes by rising flood waters. What was supposed to have been a brief stay now turned into an interminable hell hole without food, water, ventilation, and adequate policing. It did not take long for the Superdome to descend into a shocking level of barbarity.
Indeed, much of the city seemed to have gone mad. People taking refuge from the rising flood waters atop an elevated highway were left there to bake in the hot sun without food, water and shade. Gunmen battled police. Looters ignored food and went after guns, television sets, and alcohol. Even rescue helicopters were shot at.
All of this was being played out live on national television for all the world to see. It is no wonder that posts were flooding GCN’s Message Board with desperate inquiries.
From Colorado Springs, Colorado, Ken Burton, a software engineer, and brother to GCN publisher Keith Burton, watched GCN’s Message Board traffic overwhelm its server.
While message boards were about the only tool available to information seekers, the boards were hardly up to this monumental task: The problem with scrolling message boards is that under a continuous number of new entries messages are quickly lost. At one point, new postings were coming so rapidly merely trying to scan subject lines became almost impossible. There had to be a better way.
Ken went to work creating a super-performance, self-searching database that would empower hundreds of thousands of different users to simultaneously enter, edit, and search for hurricane survivors.
An Elegant Program
Ken assembled his program to run as if it were resident on the user’s computer, but in reality, it would not only live, but execute all of its functions on a distant machine, without any requirement for the user to download software. In the computing world, this kind of operation has oft been referred to as the “Holy Grail" as the database worked without burdening the user's computer, making it fast and easy to use.
Not long after the database was up and running, Ken phoned me in Richmond, Virginia, to inform me of its existence and ask me to try it out. Though it worked perfectly, we quickly realized that readers were not waiting for it to be released, the database was being filled with names right before our very eyes!
“What should we call it?” Ken asked me. I thought for the briefest of moments for we had no time. There were phone calls to make and updates to write. The best I could come up with on such short notice was “GCN Survivor-Connector Data Base.”
Ken decided to run it on a server other than the one hosting Gulf Coast News. He had one available that he used strictly for software development. While there were technical reasons for not running it on GCN’s servers, the decision was fortunate because it kept the main page from being knocked offline. GCN was being heavily read and so its main server was already running at capacity. It would not have been able to handle the main page and the database, as well.
Ken’s developmental server soon broke under the traffic load and crashed hard. So great was the mess at first we thought it had been hacked. As it turned out, there was simply not enough “connectivity,” much less processing power, to handle the volume of people seeking information. GCN was being “hit” at a rate of 1.4 million times per day, just a day after the hurricane on August 30th.
As the heavy traffic was creating a slowdown in the program Ken contacted Geir Kisti. Kisti offered the use of his own development server to support the load on the database. Ken then put the two to work in parallel, but before too long, both were slowing under the ever-increasing user demand.
Fortunately, I had sent an email to FOX News Channel’s Brian Kilmeade informing him of the database. Just at the very moment I was searching for a FOX telephone number, a producer named “Catherine” from the morning show, FOX & Friends, phoned me asking me to come on the show. I went on the following day, September 1st, to promote the database and ask corporate America to help us by donating a high performance server.
The response was overwhelming. From internet providers to oil companies, over 45 corporations responded. Interland Inc. (now called Web.com -ed.) not only offered to donate stand-alone machines on which to run both GCN and the data base, they offered us a dedicated software engineer to solve technical issues that might arise at their end.
Powered so to speak by Interland, the database quickly grew to over 67,000 entries at the time of this writing. (Currently, the database has over 76,800 names and over 81,000 total records as of 8/28/06-Ed.) The database lists loved ones whose home addresses literally span the world.
A Data Base Built One Name At A Time
Unlike databases which are populated by names assembled from preexisting rolls, GCN’s Survivor-connector data base has been built one name at a time, not by workers within a bureaucracy, but those who are actively, desperately in some cases, seeking loved ones.
“The database is very easy to use. So easy, we have even noticed what we think to be children looking for parents or other family members. I say this because they leave off vital information such as last names- and simply enter ‘Tom’ or ‘Mary,” said GCN publisher Keith Burton.
The database has even been found to have uses that were never thought of, such as communication. Users will actually change the contents of the information block as if it were a kind of instant message service.
Although the Survivor-connector Database was now running smoothly, message board traffic continued to run unabated, loading its server down and generating something known to software engineers as “Perl errors.” It was decided to let it go as the errors were still within parameters.
Meantime, Keith’s, Ken’s, and my own email accounts were overflowing. Keith was without internet access at the time so none of his email could be answered, Ken was bogged down in trying to keep the servers up under the intense traffic and posting my reports from Keith. I was working a day job and writing reports for the main page. Ken's wife, Ginny, in Colorado Springs, became involved in answering literally hundreds of emails and recording notes on the outcome.
Many of these emails were heart-felt thanks for providing vital information. But, others were from people anguishing over not knowing the fate of their loved ones. These had to be answered the best way we could under the circumstances.
Because of the scarcity of fuel and other conditions on the ground, Keith could not engage in a private search mission. So, the best I could do was assess the damage probability from the information we had available and try to offer the seeker some hope.
A good number of my replies included a message similar to this one:
… Take heart, the chances are better than not your loved ones are okay. Contacts with GCN have confirmed that over and over. I hope this helps. God Bless.
And that is what rebuilding lives and property all along the Coast will take: Heart. Debris will have to be sifted through to save what memories there that may be salvaged. Businesses will have to be rebuilt as will homes. We have to have the faith that life will go on and good times will one day return; that out of this devastation something new and good will be reborn.
Perry Hicks is the senior writer for GCN. He is a former Mississippi Coast resident and was a correspondent for the old Gulfport Star Journal. He has appeared on Fox News Channel. Perry has also hosted his own radio talk show on the auto industry with a mix of politics. Perry is a former college professor and a frequent contributor to GCN writing on stories of national importance with local interests. His articles can be found in the GCN Archive.