Thousands of Katrina 911 Calls Went Astray

A month after Hurricane Katrina, U.S. Marshals Ross Hebert, left, and Mark Frederick worked to follow up on calls made to the emergency number. With a group on loan from the D.C. Fugitive Task Force, they often had to use their detective skills to account for incomplete information in New Orleans.
A month after Hurricane Katrina, U.S. Marshals Ross Hebert, left, and Mark Frederick worked to follow up on calls made to the emergency number. With a group on loan from the D.C. Fugitive Task Force, they often had to use their detective skills to account for incomplete information in New Orleans. (By Michel Ducille -- The Washington Post)
By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 8, 2005

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Early in the afternoon of Aug. 29, as Hurricane Katrina bore down on the Gulf Coast, the phones inside the Louisiana State Police emergency operations center here began ringing with frantic pleas for help -- 467 that first day.

Families perched on rooftops, a grandmother trapped in an attic, gunfire outside a hospital. As the floodwaters rose, so, too, did the calls -- to 1,875 the following day, to 3,108 on Aug. 31, and to 3,284 on Sept. 1. The vast majority came from 70 miles away in New Orleans, but what was strange was not the volume of calls or that they were made, but how they ended up so far away from the people who needed help.

Floodwaters had forced 120 operators at the 911 center to abandon the New Orleans police headquarters. Emergency calls were supposed to be routed to the fire department but its main station was already abandoned. And so -- after hours of confusion -- many calls were shunted north to Baton Rouge, where unsuspecting emergency personnel suddenly found their phones ringing off the hooks.

The disintegration of New Orleans's 911 system carries national implications for future disasters, said public safety experts. While some communities boast sophisticated, high-tech centers with elaborate contingency plans, most cities have older systems lacking adequate backup measures for massive disasters.

"People in our country have gotten to believe that no matter what kind of trouble you get into, all you have to do is dial 911," said William Smith, chief technology officer at BellSouth, which is the phone carrier for New Orleans 911 calls. "That's not necessarily the case."

When airplanes struck the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001, New York City lost its main emergency call router, but Rick Jones of the National Emergency Number Association said it was one of the few places in the country with a backup system to automatically reroute calls.

The 911 network is actually little more than a patchwork, subject to the budgetary pressures and technological whims of local and state governments, with no national standards.

Last year, Congress passed the Enhance 911 Act, which set aside $1.2 billion over five years to upgrade emergency systems and create a national coordinating agency for 911. But as Katrina was approaching, the money had still not been appropriated.

By the early hours of Aug. 30 at police headquarters, water was rising in the elevator shafts, approaching the second-floor communications equipment. Police Capt. Stephen Gordon began the evacuation of 120 operators. "It was like getting on the ark," he said later.

They were evacuated by boat to the city convention center. Gordon determined it was impossible to set up a makeshift call center there and ended up spending the next two nights sleeping on a hotel ballroom floor.

All the while, Gordon said, he believed the telephone company was transferring emergency calls to the state police.

While Gordon was trying to keep his crew safe, 82 BellSouth employees worked in chaos downtown. Although they had generators, food and water, police reported a National Guard unit had come under attack and their safety could not be guaranteed, Smith said. The day after the hurricane, under state police escort, the BellSouth workers fled to Baton Rouge.


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