As the country braces for Hurricane Rita, which is expected to hit land Friday or Saturday, lawmakers in Washington continue their struggle to understand what went wrong in the response to Hurricane Katrina earlier this month.
Senators this morning questioned executives from several telephone companies to find out why the phone networks fared so poorly in the storms wake.
“I cannot help but think that we are repeating history. We expected so much more four years after the Sept. 11 tragedy,” said Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii. “The inability to effectively communicate during major disasters costs lives. We simply cannot repeat these failures.”
Approximately 3 million phone lines were knocked down by the storm, more than 300,000 customers remain without phone service today, and more than 1,000 cell phone sites had to be restored, according to Kevin Martin, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, who testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the government has worked with the telecommunications industry to try to ensure that communications remain viable during emergencies.
Several public/private initiatives have developed guidelines for fortifying the networks, but these guidelines proved ineffective in the face of Katrina and its aftermath.
Telephone companies typically house backup networking equipment and power generators for emergency purposes, but the massive flooding and lawlessness in New Orleans following Katrina made it difficult to get to the backup facilities to keep them running, phone company officials said.
“We never had a situation before where we couldnt get the fuel trucks into those facilities,” Bill Smith, chief technology officer at BellSouth Corp., told the committee. BellSouth is the local exchange carrier in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, where Katrina struck the hardest.
“Were working on the possibility of natural gas as a backup. We havent determined a foolproof system yet,” Smith said.
“The flooding flooded our generators, put them under water,” said Paul Roth, executive vice president of external affairs and public relations at Cingular Wireless. “I think that situations quite unique.”
In preparation of Hurricane Rita, Cingular set up staging centers in San Antonio and Dallas, and officials expect to have speedier access to damaged equipment following the storm, he said.
“We are better prepared for this one,” Roth told the committee.
Another problem that impeded the restoration efforts following Katrina, particularly in New Orleans, was that phone company technicians sometimes had difficulty getting past checkpoints because they didnt possess the proper credentials.
Industry officials are asking that the government supply standardized, pre-approved emergency credentials to infrastructure providers.
“While our teams were given letters from state officials authorizing them to enter impacted areas, those were not necessarily recognized by security and other personnel in the field,” said Hossein Eslambolchi, president of AT&T Corp.s Global Networking Technology Services and chief technology officer and CIO of AT&T.
Policy makers are also concerned about the failure of dozens of emergency 911 call centers (known as Public Safety Answering Points) in the region. Three call centers in Louisiana are still out of service, Martin said.
The committee plans to conduct another hearing next week to focus on better preparing communications systems for first responders and emergency personnel.