By BRUCE MEYERSON, AP Business Writer
When the phones don't work, improvise. That's what emergency
responders and civilians were forced to do in the aftermath of
Hurricane Katrina, which trashed the telephone system on the Gulf
Coast of Louisiana and Mississippi.
Police in New Orleans, their main communications system knocked out,
have been taking turns talking on a single radio channel with their
walkie talkies. The Mississippi National Guard even resorted to
ancient battlefield tactics, sending runners back and forth among
commanders with information.
And a local sheriff, Sid Hebert of Iberia Parish, helped keep an
ambulance company handling medical evacuations across southern
Louisiana running by loaning it a portable command center.
"He personally drove it to (our headquarters). He got us back on the
air," said Richard Zuschlag, chief executive of Acadian Ambulance
By Thursday, nearly 10,000 satellite-based wireless phones had poured
into the hurricane zone to coordinate relief efforts by federal
disaster personnel and Red Cross workers, said service providers
Globalstar LLC and Iridium Satellite LLC.
But satellite phones were spread far more thinly among the ranks of
local public safety personnel and emergency responders.
Before the storm, a few thousand satellite phones at most were in use
across the three-state region hit by the hurricane, and perhaps only a
few hundred of those were in the hands of local authorities, including
at least four Louisiana Parishes.
Though government officials have never before had to contemplate a
communciations breakdown of this magnitude, it was not immediately
clear -- with $8.6 billion in federal money handed out to states since
September 11 for emergency preparedness -- why more satellite
communciations systems were not in place.
Without such handsets, the most drenched and devastated areas of the
Gulf Coast were cut off from the outside world in more ways than one.
The grim TV footage showing a collapsed bridge that once crossed Lake
Pontchartrain, one of the main roadways into New Orleans, make it
clear why evacuations have been so difficult. That bridge also
happened to hold the fiber-optic cables that transported calls and
Internet traffic to and from the city as well.
While every major phone company has been scrambling to patch its way
into the city and other hard-hit areas using alternate routes and
backup equipment, it could be some time before many local phone and
Internet lines are back in service to receive calls and data.
BellSouth Corp., the local phone provider for much of the region, said
about 1.6 million customers could be without phone service in
Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. The company said it was able to
restore service for about 150,000 customers between Wednesday and
In the meantime, emergency personnel were often struggling to
communicate as they dealt with desperate circumstances.
In New Orleans, police officers crowded a single frequency on their
"That has posed some problems with people talking over each other,"
said Warren Riley, the deputy police chief. "We probably have 20
agencies on one channel right now."
Worse, with little power to recharge their batteries, some of those
radios were running out of juice. Riley said the police were setting
up a new communication system next to the Superdome and waiting for a
generator to fire it up later Thursday.
In storm-ravaged southern Mississippi, the national guard was doing
things the old-fashioned way.
"We've got runners running from commander to commander," said
Maj. Gen. Harold Cross of the Mississippi National Guard. "In other
words, we're going to the sound of gunfire, as we used to say during
the Revolutionary War."
Restoring phone service isn't merely a matter of waiting for the flood
waters to recede and restoring power. While many cables may be
salvageable, the electronics that pass the signals across those lines
will need to be replaced.
"It's essentially analogous to putting a PC in your bathtub. It's not
going to work once it dries," said Jim Gerace, a spokesman for Verizon
Associated Press Writers Jennifer Kerr, Brian Skoloff and Brett Martel
contributed to this report.
Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.
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