IT director, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

IT staffers at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) are scrambling to keep up with a large increase in network traffic after the agency was asked by the U.S. Department of Justice to help locate and reunite missing victims of Hurricane Katrina.

The Alexandria, Va.-based agency normally serves as a clearing house of information on missing and exploited children but was pressed into service last week to help locate missing adult victims of the hurricane as well.

Since the agency set up the special Katrina Missing Persons Hotline (1-888-544-5475) on Sept. 5, it has received over 10,600 calls in addition to 4,200 calls on its usual hot line for missing children. And the agency’s Web site, has been receiving up to 20 million hits per day — 20 times what it normally gets on a daily basis.We are seeing an increase of 240 times the normal [network] throughput we use.Steven Gelfound>Text

“The amount of calls we’ve been getting and the amount of data that we are collecting has just been massive,” said Steven Gelfound, the agency’s IT director. “We are seeing an increase of 240 times the normal [network] throughput we use” since the NCMEC began assisting in Katrina-related work.

“We didn’t realize how much of an impact this would have” on the agency’s IT resources, he said.

To meet the increased load on its main Web servers, the NCMEC has put several retired servers back into service. The agency also set up a separate internal Web site that case workers and other volunteers use to share information on missing persons.

A majority of the 19 IT staffers at NCMEC have been putting in 17-hour days monitoring network bandwidth and database changes, and ensuring availability of key systems, Gelfound said.

As part of its response, the NCMEC has also established a new 40-person call center equipped with voice over IP and wireless network technology to handle calls from people looking for missing adults and children. The all-volunteer call center is staffed by 40 former law enforcement officers from agencies as diverse as the FBI, the CIA, and state and county police departments.

When callers dial into the agency’s hot line, call center volunteers search through more than 15 major databases, including one belonging to the American Red Cross, using Web spidering technology from Yahoo and Lycos. If no match is found on any of those databases, the NCMEC then registers the missing person in its own databases as well as that of the Red Cross.

Members of NCMEC’s Code Adam and Project Alert teams that usually focus on missing and exploited children have been assigned to major relocation centers to help in the transfer of digital photographs and other data back to headquarters.

The agency is also helping federal, state and local authorities in the grim task of identifying the dead. As part of this effort, the NCMEC is working on digitally enhancing images of the unidentified dead to help in the identification process.

As of yesterday afternoon, a total of 2,430 children and 6,422 adults were listed as missing with the NCMEC.

The NCMEC is one of a plethora of organizations now involved in efforts to help Katrina victims locate missing persons, and major Web search companies such as Google, Lycos and Yahoo have all set up searchable Web pages for locating Katrina victims.

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