Red Cross works to restore communications at shelters

“Outdated hospital bed system hampers Katrina relief effort”

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The American Red Cross is doing everything it can to restore communications with its 300 shelters in the region devastated by Hurricane Katrina, the agency’s chief information officer said Friday.

The agency is making progress but “this disaster is on a scale we’ve never seen before,” said Steve Cooper, the Red Cross’s CIO and the former CIO at the Homeland Security Department.

“We have to plan that New Orleans as a city really won’t exist for the next six months,” Cooper said. Biloxi, Miss., is just as hard hit, he noted.

The Red Cross created a task force on Sept. 1 with several of its private-sector partners, including Microsoft, Cisco Systems and Cingular, Cooper said. These companies flew in personnel to provide satellite connectivity to all Red Cross shelters in the disaster area, he said.

The teams will set up phone banks and Internet kiosks so survivors can let loved ones know they’re alive, Cooper said. The equipment will also connect the shelters so they can coordinate activities and allocate resources, he said.

Red Cross shelters in the disaster area are full, and survivors must be transferred to shelters in other areas with open space, Cooper said. Survivors are transported by bus, but gasoline is running out, he said. Restoring communications among the shelters will allow Red Cross facilities to identify available shelters, saving time, money and gas, he said.

Private-sector partners have donated disposable cell phones and other equipment to the rescue effort, Cooper said.

The Red Cross is using vans loaded with communications equipment to coordinate operations in areas where phone lines, cell towers and Internet service are down, Cooper said.

The vans carry satellite dishes and both low- and high-band radios, he said. They have servers that run incident-management software and enable data and Internet Protocol communications, he said.

The communication vans also carry equipment, such as the Raytheon ACS-1000, which enable different legacy communications systems operated by responders to interoperate, he said.

The response to Hurricane Katrina is the “first significant full-scale, real-life disaster operation where the American Red Cross is working co-jointly with [Federal Emergency Management Agency] under the National Response Plan,” Cooper said.

“The plans are in good shape,” Cooper said. “The difficulty is that…we didn’t expect to have to deploy everything in such a short time.”

The Red Cross logged 73,000 cases in Florida for the entire 2004 hurricane season, he said. For Katrina alone, it projects between 750,000 and 1 million cases.

“It’s a true order of magnitude,” he said. “It’s staggering.”

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