Telecoms call for legal fixes after Katrina

Bureaucratic mix-ups, red tape and confiscation of emergency supplies kept phones offline after Hurricane Katrina. Telecoms say it must not happen again.

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.
Days after Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast last August, repair crews hoping to breathe life into a damaged telephone network were temporarily blocked by government officials who refused to give phone company workers permission to enter a disaster-stricken area.

And when looting and gunfire , bureaucratic mix-ups and problems in communication delayed efforts by BellSouth to revive a rapidly growing number of dead telephone lines that could have saved lives had they been working.

With the formal start of hurricane season on Thursday, some of the nation's largest wireless and wireline providers are vowing to prevent that from happening again. Through private correspondence and in public statements, telecommunications companies are calling on President Bush and the Department of Homeland Security to change the way the government responds to a natural disaster, and a federal panel is expected to release a report in two weeks.

Timeline: A disaster unfolds

Aug. 29, 2005: Katrina makes landfall near the Mississippi-Louisiana border as a Category 3 hurricane. Floodwaters breach levees surrounding New Orleans.

Aug. 30, 2005: Reports of looting and gunfire emerge. Utility companies gradually begin assessing damage.

Sept. 6, 2005: BellSouth estimates 810,000 phone lines remain down in the affected regions, with all but 19 of its 131 central offices up and running. It estimates the cost of the damage at $400 million to $600 million.

Sept. 14, 2005: U.S. senators request immediate allocation of $5 billion in federal funds to finance new hardware for emergency operators.

January 6, 2006: FCC announces creation of an independent panel to assess communications problems faced during Katrina

January 30, 2006: The president's National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee releases a formal report calling for telecommunications providers to be designated "emergency responders"

February 23, 2006: White House issues its Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned report, acknowledging that "lawlessness also delayed restoration of essential private sector services such as power, water, and telecommunications."

One answer would be to change federal policy and recognize telecommunications workers as "emergency responders." That designation would let them work more closely with authorities on the scene and to obtain "nonmonetary" federal help, such as security escorts and "priority" access to fuel, water and shelter.

"We're not looking for financial support, but the recognition and the arms-and-legs support to make sure we have the appropriate access at the right make sure infrastructure is restored as soon as possible," said Michael Hickey, head of Verizon's national security team and a member of a Federal Communications Commission advisory panel on Hurricane Katrina.

Leaving existing federal rules unchanged "could certainly hamper our ability to respond to our customers--both commercial customers and government customers," said David Barron, BellSouth's associate vice president for national security.

Neither the White House nor the Department of Homeland Security were immediately available for interviews with CNET this week. (A White House report did acknowledge, however, that "the lawlessness also delayed restoration of essential private sector services such as power, water and telecommunications.")

One example that's been cited as illustrating federal inaction came when BellSouth found a soggy, unhappy crowd of people outside its main downtown New Orleans switching facility soon after Katrina blew over. Company executives said they feared the crowd would try to forcibly enter the building to seize the food and water supplies inside--which could have disrupted the fragile telecommunications network even more.

"We had our own security forces that really were overextended and overwhelmed," Barron said. "Our facilities were physically being threatened. Gunshots were fired."

But its request wasn't immediately fulfilled because bureaucrats decided it might run afoul of the Stafford Act--and BellSouth was forced to evacuate its employees from the Poydras Street building.

By the third day after the storm descended, BellSouth had opted to bring in enough private security hires to get "a lot of essential things moving," spokesman Bill McCloskey said.


Correction: The sidebar to this story incorrectly identified details about Hurricane Katrina as it made landfall. The storm made landfall near the Mississippi-Louisiana border as a Category 3 hurricane.
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