This op-ed was written by GAP Homeland Security Director Jesselyn Radack, with contributions by Keri Nash.
Nearly a month after Hurricane Ike devastated the Texas Coast, major media outlets reported that over 300 people were missing. The first organized search for bodies did not take place until October 2, nearly three weeks after the hurricane made landfall. The local and state searchers were working with the Laura Recovery Center, a Texas-based missing children organization.
The Government Accountability Project (GAP) in Washington, D.C. has been tracking this information since the hurricane struck, and our numbers of missing are more than double those being reported publicly. GAP used two separate missing persons lists – Houston’s ABC 13 Person Locator and the Laura Recovery Center list – to determine how many people remain unaccounted for. After correcting for persons duplicated on both lists (30), GAP compiled a single missing persons list. Using the Red Cross “Safe and Well List,” GAP’s missing persons list was then updated to reflect survivors. In total, GAP estimates that 683 people remain missing as of November 19.
While the Laura Recovery Center takes active steps to ensure that its list of missing individuals is current, the ABC 13 Person Locator does not update the list; rather, individuals post updates voluntarily. Therefore, the ABC 13 Person Locator and the Laura Recovery Center lists may not reflect complete information on people who were found.
Why the difference in figures between my organization and major media? While the lists we relied on are imperfect, the real failure lies with the federal government, which does not have a centralized emergency contact system to find missing persons in the aftermath of a natural or man-made disaster. The possibility that as many as 683 people are missing over two months after Hurricane Ike hit, and that such information could only be gleaned by piecing together data from different non-governmental sources, is a travesty.
For all the government effort that has gone into collecting personal data on individuals and developing mass surveillance programs, it is inexcusable that the government has not created a simple tool for allowing survivors and those searching for them to find one another on a central streamlined system.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had a “Find Friends & Family” link online, but attempts to cross-reference GAP’s list against FEMA’s failed in the weeks immediately following the hurricane because the website was unavailable. When it did start running, it did not allow for such cross-checking, as a person who registers with FEMA as “safe” after being pronounced missing is only allowed to designate seven contact people who can check on them.
By November 19, the search engine on FEMA was taken down because: “The National Emergency Family Registry and Locator System is not currently available. This system is designed for use when individuals or families are displaced due to a major disaster.”
Finally, to complete the circle of absurdity, the FEMA website directs individuals to the Red Cross “Safe and Well List” and other non-profit registries to search for individuals.
Granted, FEMA has dropped the ball with other post-Ike responses. In mid-November, over 1,500 families were still waiting on mobile homes, with some having taken to tents. But clearly, the federal government should prioritize creating a central emergency contact system to reunite displaced individuals and those searching for them following a major disaster.
Ad-hoc missing persons lists of incomplete, overlapping and sometimes outdated information are common after a disaster. We saw these makeshift lists develop after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But it has now been more than two months since hurricane Ike hit. There should be a safe and easy way for evacuees to quickly and easily report their whereabouts and for those concerned to post details on the missing. The last thing friends, families and survivors should have to be doing in the wake of a disaster is frantically trying to find each other.