Thursday, September 8, 2005

The US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) website (for requesting disaster aid) is only functional for applicants using the latest version of the Internet Explorer web browser on the Microsoft Windows operating system. Users with other web browsers, such as Netscape, Opera, Safari, Firefox, or operating systems other than Windows, are effectively screened out of the site, which gives them a message that they need to download Internet Explorer version 6 or call FEMA at 1-800-621-3362 to register.

Relief workers are setting up many computer kiosks for evacuees to use. These kiosks are built from donated computers, many of which are unable to run Windows and/or Internet Explorer. Most of these kiosks use LiveCD versions of Linux, leaving evacuees unable to fill out aid forms.

A spokesperson for FEMA told MSNBC they were aware of the problem, and were trying to resolve the issue. They were, however, unable to provide an estimate of when the problem would be solved. Mike Quealy, a FEMA spokesperson, said the issue occurred because this tool was originally designed for in-house use by people working at the call center.

Telling the Opera web browser to spoof its user agent, by identifying itself as Internet Explorer, appears to trick the FEMA website into allowing the user to fill out the form. Firefox users can install the Prefbar extension (, and use the “User Agent Spoof” dropdown to achieve the same effect. Safari users can use the Debug drop-down menu (, and use the “User Agent” option to achieve the same effect. Other options are to run Windows and Internet Explorer in an emulator such as VirtualPC on the Mac or VMware on Linux. This option is slow and requires the user to already own or purchase a license for Windows and the emulator software. Purchasing the software can cost several hundred dollars. Implementing a software compatibility layer, like the GPL wine project, allows the user to run certain Windows software on Linux, but still requires valid licenses for Windows.