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ICRC reunites families split by Katrina

Pierre Barras, head of tracing operations for the ICRC in Louisiana

(swissinfo.ch)

The Swiss-run International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been helping to reunite thousands of loved ones separated in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

As of Friday, 154,000 people had registered their details on the ICRC's Family Links website – either to let people know they were alive and well or to issue an appeal for news of missing relatives.

Katrina did more than leave a vicious trail of destruction when it struck the southern states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama nearly two weeks ago.

The 200kmh winds and widespread flooding also scattered hundreds of thousands of people, separating wives from husbands, brothers from sisters and children from their parents.

The ICRC website, which was activated in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, is being run from the organisation's headquarters in the Swiss city of Geneva.

But members of the ICRC's Central Tracing Agency are also on the ground in the disaster region helping to coordinate operations.

"The more names we have, the more we increase the chances of finding people," Pierre Barras, head of tracing operations in Louisiana, told swissinfo.

Nerve centre

The ICRC team is working closely with the American Red Cross at its nerve centre in Baton Rouge, around 100km northwest of New Orleans.

An abandoned WalMart superstore has been transformed into the Red Cross's Louisiana headquarters, its walls covered with maps of the disaster zone and the vast floor space filled with hundreds of trestle tables manned by an army of volunteers.

Large signs mark out the various fields of operation: bulk distribution, sheltering, feeding, and even a staff health service for anyone feeling the strain from coping with one of the worst natural disasters to have hit the United States.

"This is the biggest disaster relief operation that the American Red Cross has handled," said spokesman Jack Papp. "The number of people we have to shelter and get back on their feet is unprecedented."

In Louisiana alone on Friday, more than 48,000 people were being looked after in 206 shelters.

Tracing operations

According to Barras, who is a veteran of ICRC tracing operations in Iraq, Somalia and Haiti, various means have been put at the disposal of evacuees to enable them to re-establish contact with family members.

In some shelters the American Red Cross has installed phone lines for people to contact the Family Links registry; in others, leaflets have been handed out informing them of the ICRC website. The media has also advertised the service.

"Where access to the internet is not possible, we recommend that people register on a form and the information is then input at a later date," said Barras.

The next stage in the tracing process will be to address the situation of the most vulnerable victims of the hurricane: the elderly and children who have been separated from families.

"We already know that in some areas there are unaccompanied minors and we are going to start with registration shortly," explained Barras, who flew in to Baton Rouge from Abidjan on Friday.

"We are still assessing information to find out the scale of the problem but what we do know is that the need exists."

The Louisiana tracing team, made up of two ICRC and two American Red Cross specialists, is due to start visiting shelters across the state within the next 48 hours.

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont in Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Key facts

On Friday 48,260 people were living in 206 shelters in Louisiana.
The American Red Cross is running operations in the state, which includes New Orleans, from the capital Baton Rouge.
The American Red Cross has at least 1,000 national volunteers in Baton Rouge.

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