Lessons

(Source: Federal Response to Katrina – Lessons Learned)

Hurricane Katrina inflicted devastating damage upon the region’s energy and communications infrastructures. The Department of Energy (DOE) reported “unprecedented damage” to the U.S. energy sector and noted that 2.5 million customers in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi reported power outages. Hurricane Katrina devastated communications infrastructure across the Gulf Coast, incapacitating telephone service, police and fire dispatch centers, and emergency radio systems. Almost three million customer phone lines were knocked out, telephone switching centers were seriously damaged, and 1,477 cell towers were incapacitated. Most of the radio stations and many television stations in the New Orleans area were knocked off the air. Paul McHale, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense, summarized the damage by stating, “The magnitude of the storm was such that the local communications system wasn’t simply degraded; it was, at least for a period of time, destroyed.

Katrina crippled thirty-eight 911 call centers, disrupting local emergency services and knocked out more than 3 million customer phone lines in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Broadcast communications were likewise severely affected, as 50% of area radio stations and 44% of area television stations went off the air. Nearly 100 radio and TV stations remained off air a month after Katrina’s landfall. The wireline telecommunications network sustained enormous damage both to the switching centers that route calls and to the lines used to connect buildings and customers to the network.
The complete devastation of the communications infrastructure left responders without a reliable network to use for coordinating emergency response operations. Flooding blocked access to the police and fire dispatch centers in New Orleans; neither 911 service nor public safety radio communications functioned sufficiently. In addition, the State of Louisiana’s 800 MHz radio system, designed to be the backbone of mutual aid communications, ceased functioning, and repairs were delayed for several days. Louisiana State Senator Robert Barham, chairman of the State Senate’s homeland security committee, summed up the situation in Louisiana by stating, “People could not communicate. It got to the point that people were literally writing messages on paper, putting them in bottles and dropping them from helicopters to other people on the ground.”

Further, without timely, accurate information or the ability to communicate, public affairs officers at all levels could not provide updates to the media and to the public. It took several weeks before public affairs structures, such as the Joint Information Centers, were adequately resourced and operating at full capacity. In the meantime, Federal, State, and local officials gave contradictory messages to the public, creating confusion and feeding the perception that government sources lacked credibility. On September 1, conflicting views of New Orleans emerged with positive statements by some Federal officials that contradicted a more desperate picture painted by reporters in the streets. The media, operating 24/7, gathered and aired uncorroborated information which interfered with ongoing emergency response efforts. The Federal public communications and public affairs response proved inadequate and ineffective.

Vanguard Technologies, Inc., “showed up the day after the storm and provided communications when we had none,” said St. Bernard’s Parish officials. Vanguard Technologies, a small Louisiana business, provided Saint Bernard and Plaquemines parishes with innovative internet protocol (IP) network solutions and utilized a Point of Presence (POP) internet connectivity that remained fully operational during Katrina, when no other company, big or small, was able to restore crucial communications in this devastated area. Vanguard also deployed a fully operational, redundant, broadband, wireless IP network, covering more than 100 square miles, within five days of Katrina’s Gulf Coast landfall. The networks supported: Voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephony; Video surveillance over IP; mobile video surveillance; high speed World Wide Web internet access; email communications via simple mail transfer protocol (SMTP); and web mail services. Vanguard, to date, continues servicing the parishes with critical communications access linking key government services and facilities.

Katrina Examples – Identifying and Routing Urgent Needs during disaster response:
Katrina – During the aftermath of Katrina, a distress call made from a cell phone on a rooftop in New Orleans to Baton Rouge was relayed, via ham radio, from Louisiana to Oregon, then Utah, and finally back to emergency personnel in Louisiana, who rescued the 15 stranded victims. Ham radio operators voluntarily manned the amateur radio stations at sites such as the National Hurricane Center, Hurricane Watch Net, Waterway Net, Skywarn and the Salvation Army Team Emergency Radio Network.

Katrina – While working on the phones for FEMA, Dionne Lewis, a four-year IRS employee for Atlanta Accounts Management, received a call from a distressed person in Texas who was living in the Houston Astrodome. This person had been displaced by Hurricane Katrina and was in desperate need of help. Thrilled to have reached someone with such compassion, the person wanted to know if Ms. Lewis could also help the next person in line there at the Astrodome. She agreed, but little did she know that the call would last throughout her entire shift as one person after another came to the phone to find what help the IRS could offer. There was little time for breaks. Ms. Lewis did not let the magnitude of the calls or the prospect of being on the phone for nearly eight hours keep her from being professional, assuring that each person was informed of their Privacy Act rights, and then affording them an opportunity to tell their story and receive what assistance the IRS could offer. These and other all day long marathon calls occurred quite frequently and became known as the Delta calls. IRS employees answered well over 760,000 registration calls for FEMA and more than 30,000 calls on the special IRS toll-free line for affected taxpayers.

Katrina – Internal Revenue Service, Portland call site assistor Jon Fredericks, received a call from an eighty-one year old woman outside of a New Orleans home needing urgent help. She was sitting in the sweltering heat, without power, waiting for someone to evacuate her. She had tried to call several help lines, but had not reached anyone so far except the IRS. Mr. Fredericks told her to stay on the line and with the help of coworker Jim McMahan, contacted city emergency services and alerted them to her situation and location. Within a short time, the rescue team arrived at her home.

Other Miscellaneous Examples
911 systems do not accept text messaging (http://www.emergencymgmt.com/safety/911-Systems-Upgrade-to.html ) “The system we have is built on an analog platform,” said Thera Bradshaw, principal with TKC Consulting Group in Los Angeles. “It served the country well for 40 years and was a public policy success, but the infrastructure that is in place is outdated in a mobile, digital world,” said Bradshaw, who’s a member of a Washington, D.C., trade group called the 911 Industry Alliance, and former president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials.
For instance, during the April 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech that killed 32, students tried to send text messages to 911, Bradshaw said, not realizing that 911 call centers aren’t equipped to receive text messages. They also can’t handle cell phone photos or streaming video from closed-circuit TV cameras or devices used by the hearing-impaired.

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