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Computer messages helping those in need


MIAMI -- A missing 94-year-old relative at a wrecked Homestead nursing home. A registered nurse seeking hospital information. Advice about hiring a contractor. Even traffic tips on the best way into South Dade County.

These messages zipped in and out of Dade County yesterday, joining hundreds of others sent and received since Hurricane Andrew hit.

Newspapers, television and radio report a big picture for the world to see, but for specific news of individual importance, lawyer Robyn Greene has become the eyes, ears and fingers via computer for a growing Dade County audience. "This was something I knew how to do that was useful," Ms. Greene said, sitting in front of her computer screen in Coconut Grove. "This was better for me than taking a chain saw and going down to Homestead."

Ms. Greene and 1 million subscribers around the globe are linked by CompuServe Information System. The computer network has about 300 forums, most computer-related and technical. But others are personal bulletin-board exchanges ranging from cooking to investing.

Within hours after Andrew, "hurforum" was born. A zone of darkness had fallen over much of South Florida because of telephone and electricity outages. The immediate need of many was basic information.

Ms. Greene became an Edward R. Murrow for a computer-connected network hungry for news.

"I was trying to give them as much information as we had available," she said. As the crisis unwound, users discovered that the computer link was an essential avenue for getting news about blacked-out South Dade to the rest of the world.

"Part of the problem is many people in the affected areas don't have telephone service," Ms. Greene said. "If your telephone isn't working, you can't do anything."

The bulletin board allowed neighbors with phone service to post computer notes about the welfare of those who were harder hit.

The three most common areas of concern have been how to help, how to find missing relatives and how to get damage reports.

Many users have asked for news about hurricane damage in the Bahamas, which has been overshadowed by the devastation and human suffering in Dade County. People who have checked on property in the Bahamas and returned have supplied news.

As one of six system operators, Ms. Greene has a semi-official capacity for directing information. From that position, she has increasingly used her computer voice for making suggestions.

She has advised many who have offered to send food and clothing not to do so immediately because of possible waste, but to send money instead. "Bananas last a day," she said. "Money is forever."

She linked one Kentucky family with a congregation in Leisure City. When a grocery chain in Cincinnati volunteered to send food, she suggested that it develop care packages of food and toiletries.

Ms. Greene says her labors are strictly a hobby under the heading of "doing what you can do."

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