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Gulf Region Remains Communications Black Hole

Three weeks after Hurricane Katrina came ashore on August 28, much of the Gulf region in the United States is still a communications black hole. Nearly a million and a half phone lines were knocked out by the hurricane’s winds, and wireless cell phone service in parts of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana is still spotty.

Rescue workers and victims of the storm have had to come up with alternatives for communicating with one another, and the situation has raised questions about whether a more reliable emergency communications system can and should be built.

Katrina did about $600 million worth of damage to phone lines as it swept ashore from the Gulf of Mexico. These are lines commonly referred to as “land line” connections, since they are non-cellular numbers, attached to a specific business or home. BellSouth, the company responsible for these lines, says it will not have most of them up and running again at least until the beginning of October, and Joe Chandler, a spokesperson for BellSouth, says the company cannot even begin to estimate when service to the flooded city of New Orleans will be restored.

“The New Orleans area is very atypical for us, because the flood waters are not… you know, they’re still there,” Mr. Chandler says. “Accessibility is an extremely difficult challenge in New Orleans, so we’re having problems even getting people in to start focusing on restoration.”

Hurricanes are not new for BellSouth. As the company responsible for the bulk of the communications infrastructure in nine southern states, BellSouth has seen its share of hurricane damage — from Hugo in 1989, Andrew in 1992, and Charley last year.

Joe Chandler says the company has taken steps to protect the South’s infrastructure from hurricane damage, but some of those measures proved useless in the wake of Katrina. “Many of our lines are underground now. Obviously, when you have them underground, you protect them from the wind,” Mr. Chandler says. “But if you focus on the New Orleans area… we’re not sure how that’s going to play out.”

He notes that BellSouth had to deal with four hurricanes last year. “We learned some things from that. However, I would say to you that this hurricane is the most devastating that our company has ever seen.”

With land lines out and survivors of the hurricane scattered across the country, people have had to come up with some pretty creative ways of finding one another and keeping in touch. Ham radio operators in states as far away as Utah and Oregon have been relaying information to and from the Gulf region about people who are missing or stranded or in need of medical attention.

And just recently, two telecommunications companies, EasyTel and Global Crossing, teamed up to provide 10,000 toll-free phone numbers to victims of the hurricane. People at make-shift shelters like the one at the Astrodome in Texas will be able to receive messages at these numbers and retrieve them from any phone.

EasyTel president Thomas Skala says they will also be able to receive faxes. “The system will allow them to pick up the faxes on any computer or any fax machine any place,” he says. “So for example, if an insurance company sends a fax to them, they can go to a Kinko’s (i.e. a commercial copy center), a library, or center within one of the various help centers to pick up the faxes.”

EasyTel and Global Crossing have also created what they are calling a “Disaster Contact Directory.” People can register their old landline numbers with the directory and leave a message, telling friends and family where they are and what their new, toll-free number is.

One of the more frustrating aspects of the communications black hole is that wireless service was affected—making it difficult for emergency response personnel to communicate with one another. BellSouth is making the restoration of cell phone towers a priority, but service is still unreliable.

Reed Hundt, former chair of the Federal Communications Commission, says this highlights the need for a national, wireless emergency communications system. Mr. Hundt insists the technology is available to create such a system that would be fully operational, even in the wake of a hurricane like Katrina. “You put antennas on the top of some buildings, and if God forbid a storm blew them down, you replace them by driving a car in that has an antenna, or by having a helicopter drop one on a rooftop, or you can even have antennas that are so small and light, they’re carried in a backpack,” he says. “It’s very possible to fix, repair, and remedy any failures in such a network literally in hours.”

Mr. Hundt estimates it would cost about $2 billion to create such a system and give all emergency responders the equipment to use it. He says if the federal government placed a temporary tax of $1 on every phone number in the country between now and the end of the year, that would raise enough money to build the system. But whether Congress has the will to impose such a tax, Reed Hundt cannot say.