E-mails From the Eye of the Hurricane

When our current e-mail and Internet system was being developed during the darkest days of the Cold War, it was designed to allow communications to flow freely in case of disaster. Never has the need for open, free, and unfettered communication been made more evident than the events of the last week.

I spoke with Mitch Gelman, senior vice president and executive producer of, who filled me on just how important e-mail has been in allowing victims, their families, and those that want to help communicate with each other.'s public information group set up a team of volunteers (staff and their families and friends) to answer a deluge of e-mails and phone calls from the public. They set up a special e-mail address and personally responded to over 7,000 e-mails. Of those, approximately 4,000 needed information on how to search for or register their missing loved ones and approximately 3,000 came from those asking how they could help.


advertisement set up a special "Safe List" on their site where people who e-mailed in could post that they were safe for their family and friends. Currently over 1,000 people are on the list.

According to Mitch, the e-mails were sorted into different groups:

1. Safe. These were e-mails from people announcing they were out of harms way. Some of the subject lines Mitch read to me were "Safe, but looking..." and "Okay in Ark."
2. Missing: The group of heartbreaking e-mails from people looking for loved ones: "Help me find my kids," "Can't find Mom," "Looking for you," and just plain, "Help."
3. Leads: These were e-mails from folks trying to provide information. In one e-mail a woman said that she saw a TV interview of someone named Shela who was looking for her sister. The woman said she was working as a volunteer and talked to a woman who was missing a sister named Shela and could they be the same?
4. Solutions: These included e-mails from people offering to open up their homes, and ideas on how best to help the refugees, including posting pictures at shelters of the missing and found.

From a coverage standpoint, e-mail was essential in staying in touch with correspondents in the field who often sent their stories in from their Blackberrys. In addition, quadrupled the usual number of e-mail news alerts last week to over 2.3 million people.

CNN did special television cut-ins based on some of the e-mails that came in from viewers. In one instance, news anchor Carol Lin was able to reunite a family with their baby based on one e-mail tip.

For all our gnashing of teeth about spam and the problem of e-mail marketing, it is important to realize just why the e-mail system was created and the importance it brings to our lives. Unfettered e-mail communications is sometimes a matter of life and death and the reunion of mother and child.

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