Communications Networks Fail Disaster Area Residents

Krystal Hurder tries to make a call with her cell phone yesterday as she and Edward Thomas wait for gas at a station in Gulfport, Miss.
Krystal Hurder tries to make a call with her cell phone yesterday as she and Edward Thomas wait for gas at a station in Gulfport, Miss. (By Rogelio Solis -- Associated Press)
By Arshad Mohammed and Jonathan Krim
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 1, 2005

Victims of Hurricane Katrina struggled to communicate with each other and the rest of the world yesterday, using everything from text messages to ham radio as most telephone service in New Orleans and coastal Mississippi remained devastated.

The near-blackout left outsiders desperate for news about loved ones, and in some cases created life-and-death situations as aid workers struggled to get information about people stranded by rising floodwaters in New Orleans.

Phone companies had trouble even comprehending the extent of damage to their systems because they could not get into some parts of the region. One telephone executive said the storm might have caused unprecedented damage to a communications infrastructure that people have come to take for granted.

BellSouth Corp., the dominant local telephone-service provider for the region, with a network that is also vital to wireless telephone systems, said as many as 1.75 million customers along the Gulf Coast may be without service. One reason the networks will be so difficult to restore is that damage to wireless towers and copper, coaxial and fiber-optic lines could be spread across an unusually wide section of the country, from the Florida Panhandle to Louisiana.

The loss of service left residents nearly as frantic for communications as for food and shelter.

Cellular South technician Bruce Utley said a man flagged down his pickup truck in battered Gulfport, Miss., and offered to pay cash to use his mobile phone.

"I told him to go ahead and use it," said Utley, who has spent the past two days hooking up generators to his company's wireless towers along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. "You can't take money for something like that."

Utley had reason to feel sympathy, having watched a 50-foot oak tree smash through the new roof on his Biloxi house at the height of the storm, destroying parts of his kitchen and living room and sending rain streaming down the walls.

His son, Jason, 18, found another way to communicate, using a text-messaging service that was sporadically available to contact a friend in Biloxi to find out if he had survived the storm.

"Water got to the ninth stair of my two-floor house, but everything's fine," he said the friend replied.

Some residents chronicled their experiences on Web logs, with news organizations compiling lists of such online journals on their Web sites. But power failures made it difficult to run computers or get Internet access and threatened to undermine phone service further.

"We have the dual challenge of dealing with the loss of commercial power, which is affecting our service, and of dealing with the actual physical damage to the network," said BellSouth spokesman Joe Chandler. The company had no estimate on when it would be able to restore all service, he said.

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