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Tech Industry

This week in New Orleans

As Hurricane Katrina made its deadly mark along the Gulf shore, the Web became a catalyst for information, relief efforts and scams.

As Hurricane Katrina made its deadly and destructive mark along the Gulf shore, the Web became a catalyst for first-hand information, relief efforts and scams.

Hurricane Katrina came ashore along the Gulf Coast early Monday, wreaking havoc on Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Thousands are feared dead in the wake of what could be the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.

New Orleans could be underwater for quite a while, according to experts, and the oil fields in the Gulf of Mexico may face years of repairs. The scope of the flooding following Hurricane Katrina, combined with the fact that New Orleans is below sea level, has created an engineering nightmare, according to Bob Bea, a professor of civil engineering at the University of California at Berkeley who also worked for more than 30 years in the oil and gas industry.

The extent of the damage was exacerbated by inadequacies in the levee system and failures of other safety precautions, he added. Cleaning up the offshore oil and chemical refineries poses an even more daunting challenge, which experts believe will lead to increases in the price of fuel. Some of the pipes extend 2,000 feet below the surface of the water, Bea said.

Hurricane Katrina has spawned more than misery and destruction; a new wave of scam e-mails and Web sites are exploiting the tragedy. Phony sites and e-mails, purporting to offer help to hurricane victims or provide more news on the destruction, are making their rounds on the Internet.

One spam campaign that's circulating offers breaking news reports but tricks people into clicking a link that takes them to a bogus Web site, according to security firm Sophos. The site attempts to exploit vulnerabilities in Internet Explorer and install malicious code, including the Troj/Cgab-A Trojan horse, on a victim's system, Sophos said.

Meanwhile, the tech community is rallying around victims of Hurricane Katrina, offering technical assistance, aiding the homeless and gathering relief donations. Wireless giant Sprint Nextel announced Tuesday that it would dispatch nearly two dozen specialty vehicles to coordinate the recovery effort and restore communications services.

Web giants Amazon.com and eBay pitched in by helping to collect donations and raise funds. Free community Web site Craigslist is hosting pages listing volunteer opportunities and offers, pleas for information on loved ones, and free temporary housing for those left homeless by the hurricane.

The Web provided some of the most vivid, first-hand accounts of the storm's destructive path in the form of blogs, online photo galleries and discussion forums. Blogs run by two New Orleans news outlets--the Times-Picayune newspaper and NBC TV affiliate WDSU--were among the most prolific. The Times-Picayune blog, run in partnership with local news site Nola.com, mainly ran contributions from its own reporters but also included some photos and reports from "citizen journalists." The site's online forums gave readers a place to exchange questions and information.

CNET News.com readers were divided over where the blame lies for the hurricane's pain.

"Obviously, President Bush can't be blamed for a natural catastrophe like a hurricane," Guy Jones wrote in News.com's TalkBack reader forum. "He can, however, be blamed for cutting down Louisiana's request earlier this year for funding to shore up and expand the levee system protecting New Orleans."

Other readers disagreed. "Sure, the Bush administration could have provided funding for a New Orleans fix, but the money was demanded elsewhere," wrote Earl Benser in TalkBack.