Feds rush mobile communications to aid relief efforts

Hurricane Katrina knocked out entire telecom infrastructures in some areas

Federal, state and local authorities struggled last week to carry out relief efforts in the ravaged Gulf Coast region after Hurricane Katrina decimated communications.

The efforts resembled the tsunami disaster relief work in Southeast Asia earlier this year. Unlike that widely praised campaign, however, the Bush administration and Homeland Security Department have received harsh criticism for failing to move quickly enough to control the situation.

The destruction of most of the region's communications infrastructure hampered relief efforts.

Federal agencies and telecommunications companies deployed mobile and satellite communications vans to battered areas of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi last week to fill gaps in commercial, federal and public safety systems. The Defense Department and Coast Guard also dispatched communications vans equipped with a wide range of satellite and land mobile communications systems to provide connectivity for commands supporting disaster relief efforts.

The Defense Information Systems Agency, for example, marshaled its satellite communications resources to provide support for the relief operations, including the deployment of Defense Satellite Communication System gear to Camp Shelby, Miss., which is DOD's headquarters for hurricane relief operations.

The four-ship USS Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group, which sailed for the Gulf Coast from Norfolk, Va., last Wednesday, is transporting mobile disaster-response communications vans, a Navy spokesman said.

The Department of Health and Human Services deployed its mobile command post to Baton Rouge, La., an HHS spokesman said. It is equipped with satellite communications systems and radios that can communicate with public safety radio systems.

Courtney McCarron, a spokeswoman for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International, said power outages along coastal areas of Louisiana cut off most forms of communication.

She said Willis Carter, chief of communications at the Shreveport, La., fire department and a second vice president for APCO, reported that the 911 emergency service system was down in New Orleans, and police and fire radio systems weren't operational because they lacked power to recharge batteries in handheld radios.

Commercial telecom connections are limited in the Gulf Coast area, said Petty Officer Third Class Larry Chambers, a spokesman for the Coast Guard command center in Alexandria, La. Commercial landline and cell phone connections are inconsistent, Chambers said.

Urban search and rescue teams from neighboring states found that some areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina don't have a communications infrastructure or a coordinated command and control system.

Barry Luke, division fire chief of the Orange County, Fla., Fire Rescue unit, said about 80 to 90 firefighters, paramedics, building engineers, technicians and others from central Florida had been sent to the Mississippi cities of Gulfport and Pascagoula and surrounding areas to search for survivors. More Florida teams from Jacksonville and Tampa were deployed following a formal request by federal and Mississippi officials.

But poor communications among the teams have hindered rescue efforts, said Luke, who has been receiving reports from the field.

"What we're finding in the rural coastal communities is that there is no ability to pick up the phone and dial 911," he said last week. "There is no ability for the public to call for help. There is no local communication system that is organizing police and fire, and the mutual aid units rolling in are [only] able to talk among themselves."

His crews use 800 MHz portable radios that can communicate up to 1.5 miles apart. Additionally, they have three satellite phones. The crews essentially conducted operations blindly, unaware of other search and rescue teams and the location and operational status of critical facilities, such as hospitals, he said.

After a disaster, local authorities typically monitor requests for help, organize the rescue effort and deploy teams in an effective manner, he said. In this case, no effective organization exists because the communities are wiped out, he said.

"We found three people who were trapped or alive and those people were rescued and put in the back of an Orange County ambulance," Luke said. "Now what does the ambulance do? Where do they go? We don't know Gulfport, Miss. We don't know where the closest hospital is. We don't know if that hospital has electricity, if it's operating. There is no radio to ask anyone that question, and there's certainly no radio to call that hospital and tell them we're bringing a patient in."

Luke said rescue coordination is starting to form as the right equipment and people arrive.

Florida also sent several sophisticated mobile communications trailers. Using equipment from the trailers, emergency workers can set up temporary antenna towers that operate different radio channels, and they can communicate with one another using devices that function across different channels.

Telecom companies also worked overtime to deliver necessary communications gear.

Marlin Forbes, vice president of defense and international markets at MCI, said the company deployed two of its communications vans packed with satellite gear to Baton Rouge and New Orleans. MCI was preparing another five vehicles late last week, and Forbes said he expected the company to deploy them Sept. 3.

To help plug gaps in public safety radio communication systems knocked out by Katrina, Motorola delivered a radio-packed trailer to the Louisiana State Police. The trailer will serve as the base station for an emergency 700 MHz communication system.

Motorola delivered another trailer to Baton Rouge, giving the city's first responders a 900 MHz emergency radio system. The company will provide a similar trailer for the Louisiana National Guard.

Motorola also shipped 2,500 pieces of emergency communications equipment to the Gulf Coast, including police radios, batteries and battery chargers. FEMA and other federal agencies are using MCI's vans to provide communications for disaster- response teams, Forbes said.

Those vans provide solid satellite communications links in an area where the hurricane cut a significant number of fiber-optic communications links, he said.

Forbes said the devastation caused by Katrina surpasses anything he has ever experienced. "We've responded to 10 hurricanes, and the devastation from this one is the worst I have ever seen," he said. "It's incredible."

Michael Arnone, Bob Brewin, Michael Hardy and Dibya Sarkar contributed to this story.

Fed closings

Hurricane Katrina affected government operations in Louisiana and, in some cases, forced the closing of federal facilities.

Here are some of the organizations that were affected.

  • The Agriculture Department's National Finance Center in New Orleans was closed. Employees evacuated from the city and continued work at a backup location in Philadelphia.
  • Navy Reserve Forces Command was moved to a temporary headquarters in Millington, Tenn.
  • The Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center in New Orleans will remain closed until residents are allowed to return.
  • The Defense Information Systems Agency's data-processing center in Slidell, La., experienced a catastrophic failure.

Sources: Agriculture Department, Defense Department, NASA

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