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Politicos assail feds' Net-based relief efforts

FEMA needs reality check, Mississippi congressmen say: How can storm victims file for aid online when some still don't have electricity?

Why is the Federal Emergency Management Agency nudging hurricane victims to apply online for disaster relief when some are living in tents and don't have electricity--much less a computer?

That's the question Mississippi congressmen are asking on behalf of their constituents.

"In South Mississippi, where there's no electricity, very limited phone service and most definitely no Internet access, FEMA representatives are handing out brochures encouraging people to make FEMA's job a little easier and call or register online to get help," Rep. Gene Taylor, a Democrat who represents a Mississippi district heavily damaged by the storm, said in a recent press release. "In the list of mistakes FEMA has made over the past three weeks, this ranks right near the top."

Courtney Littig, a spokesperson in Rep. Taylor's Capitol Hill offices, estimated on Friday that she has received dozens of calls each day this week from frustrated constituents.

Some complained that they couldn't get through to FEMA via its phone-based filing system, which has been inundated with calls in the storm's aftermath. Others voiced irritation that FEMA personnel were suggesting that they use an online form to avoid long lines at on-the-ground disaster recovery centers, of which there are currently 10 in the state--and just one for the city of Gulfport's 71,000 residents. Paper applications are no longer in use, according to a FEMA spokesperson, as all data is entered directly into computers.

"It's ridiculous to think that people have Internet access when they don't have phone access and they don't have running water," Littig said.

On several occasions each day, Littig has attempted to fill out online forms for those constituents based on information they fed to her over the phone, she said. In doing so, she and staffers from the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Homeland Security said they came to a conclusion: Not only was it often unrealistic for storm survivors to secure Internet access, but when they did, they tended to encounter numerous glitches during the filing process.

"Not once has the registration gone through," Littig said of her own experience with the tool. "The server has timed out, or when I get to the end, after answering what must be 20 questions, it says, 'The server cannot process your request' and directs you to start over again."

Congressional staffers also griped in a Thursday press release about the need to enter a "hard to read" security code--a set of scrambled, distorted letters commonly used to curtail spambots--before proceeding with the forms. Senior citizens and visually impaired persons would probably have trouble inserting the code correctly, they said.

FEMA's Web site acknowledges limitations of the online service. Filing a new application requires Internet Explorer 6.0 or above, the site said, though checking on an application filed by phone and updating its information might work in other browsers. The agency said it is working on making the process compatible with other browsers.

"The idea for the online (system) is just to provide an alternative way," a FEMA spokesperson said Friday. "We're not suggesting that everyone is in a position to do that."

The phone assistance lines are open around the clock and staffed by about 10,000 employees, the spokesperson said. Between the Web and the phone systems, 30,000 applications have been pouring in each day.

The feds shouldn't be so reliant on a system that often requires electricity and computer access, Rep. Bennie Thompson, another Mississippi Democrat, said in a statement. "We should have the resources needed to put more manpower on the ground and to hire more employees to field calls."