Telecom firms scramble to give storm aid

After Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, telecommunications firms were busy trying to restore communications. The storm destroyed the telecom infrastructure in the affected regions, tearing down telephone lines and knocking down cell towers.

In the immediate aftermath, AT&T rolled a specially equipped van into Mandeville, La., on the north side of Lake Pontchartrain, to provide satellite telephone service for the state police there, said Bob Desiato, manager of AT&T's Network Disaster Recovery Group. The van, which has a satellite dish mounted on the roof, connected telephones inside the police facility to the satellite link and restored telephone service.

MCI, meanwhile, sent two of its Big Blue vans packed with satellite communications gear to Baton Rouge, La., and one to New Orleans.

The AT&T satellite connection also provides Internet service, Desiato said. Another AT&T van is providing similar service to the Federal Emergency Management Agency in southwest Louisiana, he said, and the company sent more vehicles after those initial deployments.

"After the floods, the phones lost service, and the state lost service to state police, to their emergency operations centers," Desiato said. "The first priority was to get them back online."

Desiato said the company responds to emergencies quickly without worrying about financial or contracting details.

"We deal with the [Federal Communications Commission] out of Washington," D.C., he said. "They gave me their word [that the communications were cleared], I shook a handshake and sent the truck. Those sorts of things will be sorted out at a later date."

Last week, AT&T was planning to establish IP-based calling centers and was awaiting FEMA orders. The centers will enable evacuees and emergency workers to make free phone calls.

Sprint Nextel also responded quickly, sending two RVs, five satellite trucks and other support vehicles to the flooded areas. The company's Emergency Response Team brought 3,000 walkie-talkie handsets for emergency services teams to use.

Sprint's government sales team sent eight more RVs to start restoring service to government customers, said Sal Todaro, Sprint Nextel area vice president for the Southeast.

Verizon Wireless, Cingular Wireless and other companies deployed mobile cellular stations to temporarily support cellular phone capabilities along the Gulf Coast.

Qwest Communications is also providing aid, company spokeswoman Claire Mylott said.

"Qwest has provided local authorities communications equipment, and Qwest's office facility is being used by the New Orleans Police Department as a major base station because of its functioning communications services," she said. "We fully expect ongoing requests from federal, state and local agencies seeking assistance, and to the extent that we are able, we are completely prepared to respond."

The Federal Technology Service, an arm of the General Services Administration that oversees the FTS 2001 telecom contract, sent personnel to the affected areas, said GSA spokeswoman Mary Alice Johnson. FTS has responsibilities under the Homeland Security Department's National Response Plan, but Johnson said DHS would direct the employees.

Bob Brewin contributed to this report.

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