Tech Community Rallies For Katrina Relief

The tech community is rallying to help residents and businesses caught in the wake of one of the most devastating hurricanes to hit the gulf region of the United States.

The helping hand extended to those affected by Hurricane Katrina is similar to the aid rendered to victims of previous natural disasters, notably Hurricane Dennis and the tsunami that devastated Southern Asia last year.

Hurricane Katrina has wreaked catastrophic devastation across Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reported Tuesday.

Perhaps the hardest-hit was the city of New Orleans. The city isn’t expected to be habitable for at least another two weeks because of flooding; reports indicate widespread looting and overstressed relief operations.

According to a report Wednesday by the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper, police complained of the chaos caused by a lack of communications.

Sprint Nextel said Tuesday it would deploy its emergency response team (ERT) to aid government and emergency services’ restoration efforts. The ERT is equipped with 3,000 Nextel handsets, five satellite cells on light trucks and a number of support RVs.

Officials said power outages and the flooding limit the company’s ability to help now, but the people and assets are in place for when it’s safe to enter the affected regions. Wireline and wireless services have been impacted by the hurricane, notably a long-distance switch located at sea level in the area that had to be shut down.

“Our equipment needs power to work, and while many sites have backup generators or batteries, some of these sites may be flooded,” Sal Todaro, Sprint Nextel Southeast area vice president, said in a statement. “It is a complex issue, but we have the people and assets in place to respond as quickly as humanly possible.”

Software vendors are also doing their part to help out businesses in the area. Tugboat Enterprises launched Operation Data Recovery to provide businesses with a free trial version of its Lifeboat Data Rescue application to recover data lost until Sept. 16.

“The damage to computer systems from the storm, from lightning strikes to a surge in the power line, could damage a computer and make it non-operable, where [businesses] would have sensitive or critical data information,” said Rich Muro, president of Lifeboat distributor Testrack, based in Florida.

Security companies are also warning Internet residents of potential problems with virtual looting, in the form of donation scams.

Officials at security software vendor ESET said that while they have not found any occurrences, people should be on the lookout for e-mail scams asking for monetary donations for Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.

Scammers often prey on people’s sympathy for tragedy victims, officials from the company said in a statement, and direct them to make donations to a bank account or visit a Web site to make a donation. Only these scams don’t send money to those in need.

“It’s unfortunate how criminals are so quick to take advantage of the suffering of the victims of tragedies and exploit genuine goodwill for their own gain,” Andrew Lee, ESET CTO, said in a statement. “Though it’s easy to be moved by the tragedy, we can’t led down our guard. People should use their heads as much as their hearts when looking to make a donation.”

The company advises people take the following precaution: donate money directly to charitable organizations (such as the Red Cross), don’t blindly click on a URL in the e-mail, it could be spoofed . Type in the Web address directly to the browser, instead.

There are a number of online relief sites available for donations. According to software-as-a-service (SaaS) provider Kintera, a number of its customers have set up online donation pages for Hurricane Katrina relief, including the Atlanta and Louisville Red Cross sites and Catholic Relief Services. The company is hosting a Web site that provides links to its customers’ relief operations.

“Just as with last year’s tsunami, the ease and immediacy of using the Internet to collect donations enables charities to respond at the speed of life,” Harry Gruber, Kintera CEO, said in a statement. “In the past, it would take organizations days to ramp up its fund raising efforts to reach donors.”

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