Katrina is a lifesaver: Web designer helping victims

For about seven years, Web designer and PC technician Katrina Blankenship has worked out of her Powhatan, Virginia, home, helping customers with their computing and Web site problems through her company, Computer Connections.

But last Sunday week, as powerful Hurricane Katrina approached Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, worried Internet surfers found Blankenship's Web site, www.katrina.com, and began looking to her for information about the storm. The site was set up in 1998, long before the storm bearing the same name appeared.

"I never even thought about the Web site when all the calls started coming in," the 37-year-old Blankenship said today. Callers, who found her phone number on the site, asked if she knew the projected path of the gathering storm or had any other helpful information. "I told them they needed to look at the National Weather Service site or check The Weather Channel."

As calls poured in -- Blankenship has her home, work and cell phone numbers listed so customers can reach her anytime -- she drastically revamped her home page, adding emergency phone numbers and turning it into a Hurricane Katrina "help page."

But it wasn't until last Monday morning -- when she saw her e-mail in-box full of messages -- that Blankenship realized how many worried Internet users had gravitated to her site for help. "They were scared to death," she said. "They still are now -- the calls that are coming in with the stories that they have. One caller asked, 'Please, can you help me find my husband?' -- things like that." "

There are now listings for the Louisiana State Police, state emergency agencies, as well as resources and message boards for missing persons and general messages. Blankenship also added Web links for federal, state and local authorities and disaster assistance and recovery groups.

The message boards, she said, were added on Monday night "because I just couldn't keep up with it" as people sought help or tried to locate family members.

Since then, Blankenship has posted notes to site visitors seeking information about missing persons, telling them that they should directly contact the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Web site, where a centralized list is being assembled. "There's so many boards out there right now with missing persons," Blankenship said. "People don't know where to go. They're so confused. I'm sending them right to DHS right now."

As of last night, her Web site had received 400,000 hits, according to statistics provided by her Internet hosting company, Earthlink. Typically, the site receives only 20,000 hits in a month. Earthlink has assisted her as the load has increased by expanding the site's bandwidth several times in the past few days, she said.

Blankenship formerly hosted a computer help radio show on WRVA-AM 1140 in Richmond, Va., which later morphed into her Web site and Computer Connections.

The disaster in the Gulf of Mexico came just as Blankenship and her family were settling into a new rental house in her Virginia town. With still-packed boxes all around, Blankenship and several friends and volunteers are now answering phones, taking information from callers and helping however they can. The volunteers are typing information about missing persons into databases, then passing the information to the DHS.

"My living room has turned into a computer center right now," she said. "I'm overwhelmed and I'm exhausted, but it makes you feel good that you can do something. I wish I could do more. I really wish I could drive down there in a car, pick them up and bring them to my house."

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