Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Hurricane Katrina: A Damage Assessment and First Lessons Learned

The FCC held a special open meeting to examine the effects of Hurricane Katrina on communications services. The meeting was held at BellSouth's Emergency Control Center located in Atlanta. Some key points:

  • More than three million people lost their phone service in 3 states, about 15% of which remain out-of-service as of September 14th.

  • More than a thousand wireless towers were knocked down

  • Over 11,000 utility poles are down, 26,000 spans of cable are down, 22,000 line drops are down

  • There was a serious breakdown of the 911 system across a wide area. Forty three 911 call centers had to be rerouted during the storm due to damage or loss of the facility. In addition to destruction of physical facilities, there was the breakdown in command-and-control among first responders.

  • The electrical power grid took a major hit and the widespread power outages across the whole area further disrupted telecommunications.

  • Out of the 578 central offices in Hurricane-affected states, 545 remained in service.

  • Six central offices in New Orleans remain offline, including one that is still underwater. Three 911 centers in Louisiana remain offline.

  • The loss of connectivity on the wireline network quickly spilled over to the wireless networks.

  • Over 100 broadcast stations were knocked off the air.

  • Only 2 AM and 2 FM radio stations in New Orleans remained on the air following the hurricane. These local radio stations were the only way only getting news out during the crisis.

  • BellSouth activated its Emergency Center days in advance of Hurricane Katrina and its personnel ensured that all back-up generators were refueled and ready-to-go. However, because of flooding and security issues, Bell South could not refuel many of these back-up generators.

  • The lawlessness in New Orleans following the hurricane was a major issue. An emergency control center had to be evacuated and could only be re-staffed under the protection of heavily-armed federal marshals.

  • BellSouth used boats to deploy microwave connected cell sites in areas that were down, but these boats required federal or state security escorts due to gun fire in the areas

  • BellSouth now needs to dispatch Hazardous Materials teams to recondition facilities that were underwater and might pose a threat to health.

  • BellSouth estimates the damage at $400 to $600 million and will have to bear these costs now as it redeploys equipment.

  • Many telecom employees were themselves victims of the storm, losing property, homes and family members. Nevertheless, these technicians have been working tirelessly to restore services.

  • The wireless industry has cooperated in a remarkable fashion to share facilities, spectrum, workers and fuel in order to restore communications as soon as possible.

  • Satellite phones played a key role in the critical hours following the storm, providing the only dial tone and data services across a wide area.

After describing the damage, Rod Odom, President of Network Services for BellSouth, presented the following list of lessons learned:

  • Network providers and their customers are increasingly dependent on power and the extended loss of power severely hampers communications. Cell phone users had no place to recharge their batteries. An estimated 60% of home users are using electrically-powered cordless phones and these were disabled even when the network was up.

  • There is a need to improve the re-rerouting of 911 centers to geographically diverse areas.

  • First responders from different jurisdictions need compatible equipment.

  • Switching equipment, generators and fuel tanks need to be located above any potential flood lines.

A webcast of the meeting is archived on the FCC site.


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