Remember the old nursery rhyme about the three little pigs? One built his house of straw, another of sticks, and the smartest built his home of bricks. The story left no doubt that the wolf was big and bad, but neither the bigness nor the badness of the threat was the point. The lesson was to prepare as well as you can, because the wolf is coming. Hurricane Katrina left no doubt that our nation’s leaders have failed to prepare for the worst. And the nation’s self-appointed watchdogs have been so busy chasing celebrities and trying not to upset public leaders that they have failed to tell us that the Executive Branch and the legislative guardians of the public purse have been building a house of straw.
There is nothing new about the need to strengthen the levees in New Orleans. There is nothing new about the need for plans and assistance to evacuate the elderly, the sick and the poor when hurricanes threaten the Gulf Coast. There is nothing new about the need to establish communications systems that can still operate in the case of a flood, or high winds, or a terrorist attack. There is nothing new about the need to establish a reliable means of communication among local and federal emergency responders. But when the wolf came we were not ready.
After Katrina swept through, after the levees broke, millions were left without a communication system, without a lifeline they had come to take for granted. Newspapers, television and radio broadcasts were not available. Basic telephone service, cell phone service and Internet service went down after generators, designed to power the phone lines ran out of fuel or were flooded. According to BellSouth Corp., the dominant telephone-service provider in the region, as many as 1.75 million customers along the Gulf Coast may be without service, and it might be several months before service is restored. It didn’t help that some of the company’s equipment in New Orleans was especially vulnerable to water damage. Some of the splices in its copper phone lines, for example, were covered with paper instead of protective plastic.
But communications between residents and businesses were not the only problem. “This is a further demonstration of our inadequate response to the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations and other warnings about the failures in our first responders’ communications systems,” said Sen John Kerry. Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers said, “Our biggest problem is communications,” noting that cellular phone towers were all knocked out, making it nearly impossible for citizens in need to call for help. “We have to know where to drop (supplies) and what to drop.”
In New Orleans, police officers were forced to use a single frequency on their patrol radios. “That has posed some problems with people talking over each other,” said Deputy Policy Chief Warren Riley. “We probably have 20 agencies on one channel right now.” And with little power to recharge batteries, some of those radios would soon become useless. In southern Mississippi, the national guard couldn’t even count on radios. “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.”
Police were unable to warn residents to stay at home because communications lines and radio, television and telephone communications were down. Risking still dangerous waters, residents took to the streets to find out for themselves what was happening to neighbors, to find a communication line that might still work.
In defense of C. Ray Nagin, the frustrated Mayor of New Orleans, Sen. Mary L. Landrieu said the mayor was another victim of a collapsed communication system. “No matter how great a mayor is, and this mayor is great, they cannot function well without good communication,” Ms. Landrieu said. “No mayor could have kept control of this city without a functioning communication system. He couldn’t call a press conference or the chief of police.”
At a minimum we need advanced communications networks with more emergency power systems at secure locations. Spectrum must be set aside for emergency responders satellite technologies. With lives at stake, with more hurricanes on the way, with the wolf at the door, we cannot leave our protection up to whim of markets.
There should be no confusion about this: The devastation to the Gulf Coast and to New Orleans was anticipated. The problems with our basic national communications infrastructure was exposed on 9/11. The call for a more intelligent use of the electromagnetic spectrum has gone unheeded by this administration and by this Congress for too long. We need communications policies established in the public interest, not in the interest of the highest bidder. Will we go back to taking communications for granted? Or will we hold our elected representatives responsible for building a house of straw?
“We always discover the same thing,” said Reed E. Hundt, a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, “We need a national emergency communications network and we don’t have one.”