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FCC examines Katrina disaster response

Agency pledges to study communications failures during the disaster and proposes a targeted $211 million relief fund.

The Federal Communication Commission pledged on Thursday to examine communications infrastructure breakdowns that hampered emergency response and rescue efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, saying it would aid victims of the crisis.

The agency discussed its plans at a special open meeting at a BellSouth Emergency Control Center in Atlanta, Ga., and warned that the nation's communications infrastructure remains critically vulnerable to disasters and attacks.

"Last year, the 9-11 Commission Report described a state of communications unreadiness that seriously hindered our country's ability to respond to that attack," FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said at the meeting. "It also described a chilling picture of communications unreadiness three years later. And Hurricane Katrina has shown us we still have far to go. Now people are talking again about the need for full-scale emergency planning. This time, we dare not fail."

To address these concerns, the FCC said it would commission an independent review of the impact of the hurricane and seek recommendations from an expert panel on ways to improve disaster response, network reliability and public-safety operations. The agency said it would also establish a new bureau responsible for coordinating public safety, national security and disaster management activities within the FCC.

The agency said its biggest priority is to facilitate better coordination between government, industry and media during times of crisis--a task that Commissioner Copps deemed an "enormous challenge."

"When you watch search-and-rescue teams from Virginia, and law enforcement officials from Florida, and EMS medics from California, and countless others making their way to the Gulf Coast to help, don't we owe them a system that enables them to communicate once they get there?" Copps said.

More than 3 million people in the Gulf States lost phone service during the Katrina disaster, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said during Thursday's meeting. More than 1,000 wireless towers were knocked down, and more than 100 broadcast stations were knocked off the air, he said.

The restoration of services is ongoing, said BellSouth executive Rod Odom, one of Thursday's panelists. Tens of thousands of phones lines and dozens of central offices are still out of service, he said.

Other panelists described harrowing moments in their many efforts to keep the lines of communication open during the crisis. Willis Carter, chief of communications at the Shreveport, La., fire department, recounted seeing 911 emergency dispatchers working and living in their dispatch centers for days on end. Diane Newman, operations director of WWL-AM (870), a talk radio station in New Orleans, recalled a group of men who waded through snake- and alligator-infested waters to restore generators that kept the station on the air.

The FCC also proposed on Thursday a $211 million fund to help consumers, schools, libraries and hospitals struck by the hurricane. As part of the package, the agency said it would provide wireless phones and a package of 300 free minutes for evacuees and people still without phone service. More than half of the money will go to schools and libraries that must rebuild.