Tech Samaritans

Wireless Networks Give Voice To Evacuees

By Arshad Mohammed
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 9, 2005

Hurricane Katrina survivor Caprice Butler had been at a church shelter in rural northeastern Louisiana for nearly a week when she finally heard her husband's voice on an Internet phone running on an improvised wireless network.

"I was just overjoyed," she said yesterday, tearing up as she spoke outside the church in the farming town of Mangham, about 200 miles from her flooded New Orleans home. "Words can't explain how I felt."

If the Butlers manage to reunite this weekend, as they hope, it will be because of a band of volunteer techies who are stitching together wireless networks at shelters across northeastern Louisiana using radio transmitters mounted on such items as a grain silo and a water tower.

With few reliable communications systems in place, people and companies from around the country are converging on the region to create improvised networks that give survivors and emergency personnel ways to talk and coordinate efforts.

While local telephone and wireless networks are slowly coming back, they remain spotty or nonexistent in some places, and fire, police and other rescue personnel have complained about the lack of a unified emergency communications system. To meet the needs of evacuees in Jackson, Miss., Dulles-based America Online has parked an 18-wheel truck at the Mississippi State Fairgrounds, a major shelter, with a satellite dish on top and 20 computers with Internet access inside. At the Houston Astrodome, volunteers have obtained a Federal Communications Commission license to set up a low-power radio station and are now struggling to get permission from local officials to broadcast to evacuees inside the stadium.

F4W, a Lake Mary, Fla., company, is under government contract to provide Internet phones and online access to Coast Guard officers cleaning up oil spills, using a portable satellite dish and handsets often deployed in forest fires.

The network at Mangham Baptist Church was the brainchild of Mac Dearman, a wireless Internet service provider who was driving past the church last week when he saw a group of parked cars, realized they were people who had fled the hurricane and set about providing relief, including food, clothing and online access.

Dearman hooked up a radio transmitter near the church and linked that to a voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) telephone and a computer, and suddenly the dozens of people taking refuge at the church had the ability to reach out to the outside world.

Mostly, they are searching for loved ones and filling out Federal Emergency Management Agency forms to get disaster aid.

"They just call from shelter to shelter to shelter looking for their kids or for their daddies or their brothers because they got separated, and they are just finding each other in the last few days," Dearman said, adding that people were often overwhelmed when they connected.

"They cried big tears, hugged my neck, shook my hand and patted me on the back. You'd have thought I was really giving them something that cost a lot of money," he added.

Dearman is working entirely with donated labor and equipment.

People from as far afield as Nebraska, Missouri and Indiana are camped out in his house, coordinating equipment deliveries, searching for shelters that need service, and then sending out volunteers to climb towers to hook up radio antennas and set up the networks.

"We are basically completely bypassing the phone system," said Matt Larsen of Scottsbluff, Neb., who said he was perched on a bar stool with his laptop at Dearman's kitchen counter.

Dearman estimated that he had run wireless links to about a dozen shelters near his home base of Rayville, La., but only about half were up and running because he had run out of equipment.

He was expecting fresh donations of secondhand computers, VoIP phones and wireless equipment. Once he has those in hand, he said, he hopes to extend to shelters closer to New Orleans and to Mississippi's Gulf Coast.

"It's been a godsend," said the Rev. Rick Aultman, pastor of Mangham Baptist Church, where about four dozen people are staying.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company