WASHINGTON -- Lost or displaced Gulf Coast residents will be able to search for their families in Hurricane Gustav's aftermath through a new FEMA locator system that was created as a lesson learned from the chaotic 2005 storms, FEMA Director David Paulison said Sunday.
An estimated 18,000 people were reported lost immediately after hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma slammed into the Gulf Coast and Florida three years ago, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.
"As you remember during Hurricane Katrina, we didn't have a system like that in place, and it was very difficult for families to locate family members," Paulison told reporters Sunday during a briefing about the government's preparations for Gustav.
The National Emergency Family Registry Locator system aims to replace frantic and piecemeal attempts -- mostly through personal Web sites or nonprofit aid agencies -- to find missing relatives. Paulison said it can be accessed through the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Web site at www.fema.gov or by calling toll-free at 1-800-588-9822.
"You have to register to make sure" that family members can find their relatives, Paulison said. There is also a section on the system specifically for missing children, he said.
In the wreckage of Katrina, telephone systems were knocked out for months, forcing desperate families to try to reach the missing through television or the Internet.
Three months after Katrina, 1,030 children were still listed as missing with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. At one point, more than 340,000 people had signed on to an American Red Cross online service to help loved ones locate one another.