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 VOL. 6
 ISSUE 8
After Katrina - Technology Lifelines @Work
Interview with Danny Perry, Executive Director, Tech Corps, Texas

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Danny Perry.

During the days and weeks immediately following Hurricane Katrina, thousands of gulf-area residents relocated to Houston. Tech Corps Texas played an important role by forming a coalition to provide much needed technology solutions to a variety of large and small shelters.The National Cristina Foundation directed donations of equipment to Tech Corp Texas to assist them in this effort.

Tech Corp’s mission is to enhance K-12 education through the innovative use of technology, and to mobilize volunteers into schools in support of teachers, students, infrastructure and programs. Their goal is to create a technologically literate society in which all students have access to the resources to allow them to successfully compete in the global workforce. They are active in multiple school districts in the Houston, Austin, San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley; involving over 60 schools, many non-profit organizations, and literally hundreds of volunteers and students. National Cristina Foundation spoke with their Executive Director, Danny Perry.

Danny Perry in the Convention Center's Computer lab
on it's last day of operation.

NCF: A year ago the Texas community had to suddenly greet lots of displaced people. How did that influence how you responded to events that were going on around you?

DP: When the hurricane hit there obviously was a devastating impact to the entire Gulf Coast, particularly the City of New Orleans, and the residents who were dispersed nationally. Houston was at the forefront of that resettlement effort, with a large population coming over approximately five days after the storm hit. They were initially directed to the Astrodome. The immediate impact was overwhelming, really, and to the credit of the people of this city and others around the country, people really stepped up to volunteer and to provide donations in support of these people who really came over with literally the clothes on their back.

University of Houston volunteers help to set up the computer lab.

My initial area of involvement was to meet with relief coordinators at the Astrodome. They needed to establish another mass shelter at the George L. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston. They wanted to establish a technology communication center there at the Convention Center, so we volunteered. I showed up that Sunday morning with 45 computers in conjunction with a few volunteers, and a close colleague, Johnny Molock, the Technical Director of our partner organization; Bridging the Digital Divide. We set up a 30 station computer lab for adults in what became known as the Room 303 CTC (Computer Technology Center.) Another lab was set up with 15 computers for kids in the children’s day care area. These were set up with educational games and software for their amusement. Those two CTC’s immediately ramped up to full capacity, and began to provide services to the more than 8,000 people who were on site, and to many more who came there for day services. People came to fill out applications, access services, or search online for information.

NCF: So at that time, once you completed the two CTCs and ascertained that this was something that was useful to the population who had arrived, what was your next challenge?

DP: There was a series of concurrent challenges. Everything happened all at once. With 8,000 people on site, getting volunteers to man the computer labs was a big early challenge. There were a lot of people volunteering, but we needed technical volunteers…people who were web savvy. They also needed to be patient enough to help folks access the internet and walk them through the FEMA applications; which were a monster for a number of reasons.

The main problem was that FEMA’s bandwidth was small. They anticipated a maximum hit level of about 10,000 per month, and at that time they were receiving well over half a million hits per day. Their servers bogged down continuously. The second problem was that there was no way to save your information during the application process, so if you did not make it completely through the application and the servers bogged down, you lost your application, and had to reapply from the beginning. This happened over and over and over again.

NCF: That must have been frustrating for everybody! Who was assisting you with this effort?

TECH CORPS Texas VISTA member Robin Harrison
helps out in the computer lab at the Convention Center.

DP: We had activated members of our VISTA program (Volunteers of Service to America). Volunteers from the University of Houston developed an intranet for use within the computer labs with links to relief sites and other information needed (for example: housing, State of Louisiana services, the Red Cross, etc.)

Volunteers needed to also be willing to listen to people’s stories because we found ourselves as point of first contact. So people were almost literally getting off of their roof, shoulder deep in water and then finding themselves [a few days later] in our computer lab. The first thing they were directed to do was to fill out the FEMA applications, which required that they have an e-mail address, so that they could be e-mailed a password to gain information regarding the status of their application. We established about 3500 new e-mail addresses.

NCF: I have to say that’s an ironic thing that when people are coming out of a disaster, they’re expected to have a computer that has their e-mail addresses on it.

DP: Yes it is. It was a little bit crazy, that’s really the only way to explain it. We also found that the evacuees who ended up in the mass shelters had extremely low levels of computer literacy. Probably 60-70% of the people we dealt with had no computer experience --- none. As in, “I don’t know how to use this thing”, and “I need someone to help me figure out what it’s asking me, and type in this information for me.” In addition, the overall literacy levels were not quite up to par, and so the combination of the two in conjunction with the trauma that they all had just experienced made for a pretty interesting situation.

NCF: Within a week or two, you had labeled yourself a coalition, and were putting out press releases and appeals, and coordinating lots of different groups. That sort of activity isn’t always easy under the best of circumstances, so please talk a little bit about how that coalition formed so quickly.

DP: I had mentioned that after initially going to the Astrodome I learned of the coming need at the George L. Brown Convention Center and basically placed our organization in the position of addressing that need. Johnny Molock, of Bridging the Digital Divide, and I have worked together, and we continue to work together, on a number of different activities, including computer refurbishing. Their organization provides storage for computers that are donated to us, and they have assisted in the refurbishing, pick up and distribution of computers. Once it was decided to develop these labs at the George L. Brown, I spoke with Johnny and we decided to meet there the next morning and to bring the computers and to move it forward from there.

Volunteers assist evacuee children in the “Kids Only”
computer lab.

As soon as these labs opened, they were swamped. From the moment that we turned on the computers, they were packed continuously for 15 days; averaging between 800 and 1000 users per day. Between me, Johnny, employees of our organizations, and some volunteers that were coming through the convention center, it was still not enough. I am the chair of an organization called the Houston IT Empowerment Consortium, which is an umbrella group of non-profits, business and educational institutions that meet on a regular basis. I called upon them for volunteers and we received quite a good response from that organization and from other organizations as well; including Simdesk Technologies and EnVision Communications and A-Rocket Moving and Storage. Everyone was looking for a way to get involved, so all of those companies, non-profits, and individuals that were associated with them came together to help out.

NCF: It goes to show the importance of consortiums and community coordinated solutions for enablement, whether it’s for disaster relief or for just empowering the community in an ongoing way.

DP: I think we were fortunate that the spirit at that time was to really do what we could for everyone involved. I think this entire region galvanized around that effort.

NCF: It was fortunate for the people who were impacted on the Gulf Coast by the hurricanes found themselves in Houston, a city where people believe in the strength of what people can provide to each other under difficult situations.

DP: With so many people showing up in such a short time span, there are not many cities that could really have dealt with that challenge so quickly.

NCF: We would have all owed you our gratitude if you had just set up the projects that you identified in those first few weeks after Katrina and then returned to your traditional program work in Texas. You determined, however, to continue to work on locating additional computers to benefit the Katrina evacuees who were now locating within the broader community.

A volunteer assists with a FEMA application for lower 9th
ward home owner Larry Prince and his brother.

DP: We recognized early on that the need for the technology access and support services for the thousands of those impacted by Katrina was not going to dissipate once the mass shelters emptied out, or as the residents were dispersed further. Secondly, that many smaller facilities were being taxed to an even greater degree because they did not have computer technology or enough volunteers. So one of the early initiatives for the Bridging the Digital Divide Coalition was to support the placement of technology within those smaller organizations. We were supporting the churches and the other smaller groups that were providing services as well, so we quickly depleted our supply of computers and we began to really beat the bushes for more. That is why Johnny Molock sent an email to NCF to request computers. Tech Corps then submitted a grant application and on September 14th we were approved as a new partner organization, and by October the 6th the 275 computers and monitors were here.

NCF: We were pleased to respond to the request.

DP: It appeared to us that you guys moved very, very quickly, from the moment of first contact to a truckload of computers arriving here. We were very appreciative, as was the community. We were able to use those 275 computers to establish 27 new centers and enhance some preexisting centers, both in churches and non-profits. The computers sent by the National Cristina Foundation made a huge difference here. Immeasurable really, immeasurable

NCF: Now it’s a year later, where do you see your challenge today?

Tuan Amith, a Tech Corp’s VISTA volunteer, in the computer lab.

DP: We had up to 200,000 or more individuals who were here, and perhaps 120,000 of them are still here in Houston, but there are now fewer resources that are available to assist them. The education system is strained by the influx of students. Not just in sheer numbers, but because a number of the students who ended up settling here were, by and large, well behind the students in the schools in which they were placed. It effected the schools ranking in relation to adequate yearly progress (under the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills Exam), and there were also some inevitable tensions between students from here and there.

NCF: What do you see as the next step, from the technological prospective?

DP: I think there needs to be a major effort to assist those students who don’t have the ability to use technology. The hurricanes, in particular Hurricane Katrina, demonstrated that there is quite a significant population of people who don’t have those skills; maybe many, many more than we think. Technology is basically ubiquitous today, and the ability to use it is really becoming the determining factor between good and bad grades, and decent employment. Everything requires some level of technical usage and there seems to be an entire group of people who are being completely bypassed by the technical revolution. As a result the opportunities that are available to those people are limited.

We have tried to address this through the establishment of the new Community Technology Centers (CTCs), and by establishing a limited number of basic computer literacy training programs in a number of those CTCs. We are utilizing the curriculums of one of our partner agencies, the Technology Opportunity Institute, to teach people the very basics of computer and internet use.

The first day of operation at the “Kids Only” computer lab
at the Convention Center.

I think that technology needs to be more widely utilized within the coordination of disaster relief as well as disaster planning; whether that means forums, online communities, coordination efforts utilizing current technology to both share best practices, and to facilitate additional thought around these issues. I think that technology can play a major role within that effort bridging gaps between people geographically and socially and economically, and provides a tool that allows everyone to participate.

NCF: Danny, we look forward to ongoing work and coordination with your organization, hopefully under happier circumstances.

 

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