I spoke with Mitch Gelman, senior vice president and executive producer of CNN.com, 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.
CNN.com'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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
CNN.com 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, CNN.com 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.