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 ofin 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 time...to 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 News.com 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.
BellSouth wasn't alone in fending off security threats. One night, a Sprint Nextel contractor who was refueling one of the many generators used to keep the wireless network running found himself held up at gunpoint by someone intent on stealing the rest of his diesel. The company ultimately brought in its own armed guards. "As an industry, we shouldn't have to overcome that," said Sprint Nextel spokesman John Taylor. "People depend on their communications."
Other carriers, which were not named, also reported spotty responses when seeking protection from the National Guard and the U.S. military, according to a recent report by the president's National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee (click here for PDF). The process of contracting for private security forces prompted delays of up to five days to restoration efforts in some cases, the report said. And even after resorting to private security hires, out-of-state guards encountered obstacles because one must obtain a special license to tote weapons publicly in Louisiana.
Telecommunications providers also point to other problems with interactions with local, state and federal government officials that came to a head during Katrina.
For instance, because of their murky legal status--they weren't officially designated emeergency responders--corporations couldn't stop government officials from confiscating truckloads of fuel and other supplies, directing them away from damaged communications sites and instead to other unknown locations. Central switching facilities across Louisiana and Mississippi (though never the downtown New Orleans branch) lost power because fuel supplies simply ran out, BellSouth says.
"You don't get access, or you do get access but only get halfway to where you're going, or someone commandeers your materiel," said Dave Flessas, Sprint Nextel's vice president for network operations. "And it's a very confused situation because everyone's working from their own priority sheet."
A dispute over the Stafford Act
Two primary documents govern the response to serious emergencies in the United States. The Stafford Act, a federal law last amended in 2000, outlines a framework for disaster relief primarily to state and local governments. More-detailed directions for various emergency support providers lie in the National Response Plan, a document drawn up by the Department of Homeland Security in response to a congressional mandate but without the force of law.
The telecommunications industry argues that more-conservative interpretations of the Stafford Act could block--or, as they experienced during Katrina, significantly delay--federal assistance. Private power companies and other infrastructure owners would also be affected.
That's because the text of the Stafford Act, talks about relief for "private nonprofit" organizations but does not specifically mention how for-profit companies should be treated. The National Response Plan also is ambiguous.
Earlier this year, the National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee, currently headed by BellSouth CEO Duane Ackerman, sent a letter to President Bush urging him to support such changes. The group's participants also included representatives from AT&T, Microsoft, Verizon and Sprint Nextel. Members of the FCC's independent panel examining Katrina-related communications concerns have voiced similar views and plan to publish recommendations in about two weeks.
The companies' complaints are legitimate, said Jim Chen, a University of Minnesota law professor who's penning a book about disaster law. But if telecommunications companies are able to secure the "emergency responder" designation, he said, then other privately owned utilities deserve such privileges as well. After all, wireless and voice over Internet protocol phones "are worthless unless electricity is flowing."
The broader question of how private companies should interact with more traditional relief workers has long been up for debate, Chen said. He recalled a time last decade when bad springtime floods hit the Iowa plains, and nearby Budweiser showed up with drinking water from its massive brewery stores.
"In principle, there are other entities such as bottling companies that have access to enormous amounts of water, and so, at a certain level, I'm not sure that you need to (restrict emergency providers to) telecommunications and utilities," he said.
There's some evidence that the Bush administration, already subject to wide-ranging congressional scrutiny over missteps during Katrina, is heeding the telecommunications industry's advice.
All recommendations from advisory panels must first travel through a chain of review before the agency releases a formal response, a Homeland Security representative said. But phone company representatives said they've received assurances from Homeland Security officials that they won't have trouble accessing disaster sites in the future.
Those companies met recently with government officials in BellSouth's home state of Georgia to discuss those concerns and to test a credentialing system built on uniform vehicle hangtags and authorization letters. Louisiana has reportedly agreed to adopt a similar approach, and other Gulf states are expected to follow suit. The Florida Highway Patrol, no stranger to hurricane preparation, already allows communications workers past barriers into disaster zones, says Sprint Nextel.
"I think there's a sense at DHS that the language is in place, the understanding is in place, to make sure providers get access more quickly in the aftermath of storms that may occur during the coming season," said Verizon's Hickey.
It's less likely that Congress, with an abbreviated election-year calendar, would meet the telecoms' bigger goal this year, which is amending the Stafford Act. But they don't intend to give up yet.
"At the end of the day," said BellSouth's Barron, "we're very concerned that if push comes to shove, we're going to be right back into the debate about the Stafford Act, which is the law."