Disaster Web Sites Overloaded with Queries About Loved Ones

Josh Gohlke
The Record—Bergen County, New Jersey
September 17, 2001

The owners of a tourism Web site in the U.S. Virgin Islands started the Disaster Message Service six years ago to help people in the Caribbean communicate after Hurricane Marilyn.

Its popularity led them to expand as new disasters unfolded worldwide, producing a proliferation of public message boards grouped under a list of links on the site's home page: tornado, tsunami, volcano, drought, earthquake, forest fire, flood.

None of that, it seems, quite prepared the service—www.disasterboard.com—for the electronic deluge that started Tuesday and hasn't stopped yet.

"The volume has been much larger than any other national disaster we have had message boards for," editor Sophia Aubin said via e-mail. "We were receiving thousands of posts per hour."

After opening an "America Attacked" area dedicated to the terrorism at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the site had to expand from four message boards to twelve. Messages were grouped in new archives every few hours.

After several hours, the site's host told administrators that the messages were taking up too much bandwidth and that the site would be shut down, Aubin said. Once informed of the public-service nature of the site, however, Hostcentric in Houston, Texas, agreed to provide more capacity at no charge, Aubin said.

Far-Flung Postings

Names on the bulletin boards came from places ranging from Hawthorne and Clifton, New Jersey, to Australia and Romania. The Internet became a virtual extension of the roving bands of bereaved relatives and friends in Manhattan, where physical gathering places were established in the days following the attacks.

The echoes of wartime confusion are unavoidable. In fact, Aubin said, the only comparable volume in the site's history was during the war in Kosovo, and that came over an extended period.

The Disaster Message Service was not alone in the inundation. Prodigy, based in Austin, Texas, had posted 8,000 names to its "I'm OK" list (okay.prodigy.net) and recorded two million searches as of Friday, said a spokesman for the company. Two employees were dedicated to maintaining the list full time.

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