Crisis Communications Remain Flawed

Sept. 11 panel members Lee H. Hamilton, Thomas H. Kean and Slade Gorton saw eerie similarities in responses to the terrorist attacks and to Katrina.
Sept. 11 panel members Lee H. Hamilton, Thomas H. Kean and Slade Gorton saw eerie similarities in responses to the terrorist attacks and to Katrina. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

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By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 10, 2005

Emergency workers isolated and unable to call for help for themselves or others; radios and cell phones inoperable; and government unable to respond to a catastrophic event.

The chaos that followed Hurricane Katrina, vividly recounted in thousands of pages of documents recently released by Louisiana officials, had an eerie familiarity to members of the Sept. 11 commission, who delivered their final report this week.

"On September 11, people died because police officers couldn't talk to firemen. And Katrina was a reenactment of the same problem," Thomas H. Kean, the commission co-chairman and former New Jersey governor, said in an interview. "It is really hard to believe this has not been fixed."

But four years after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Kean and the commission concluded, emergency communications networks in most U.S. cities still cannot sustain a major natural disaster or terrorist strike, despite pledges from Congress and the Bush administration to rapidly upgrade the networks and implement national standards to make it easier for emergency workers to talk with one another during crises.

In their report card, the commission members gave the federal government one of its five F's for not setting aside a frequency for first responders -- a grade that many experts agree the response to Katrina only underscored.

"The New Orleans calamity proved overwhelmingly the government's inability to solve chronic, fundamental problems with communications," said Reed Hundt, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission for six years in the 1990s. "No one in the government has shown leadership on this issue, and now the results are tragic."

The patchwork quilt of incompatible systems that existed in the Gulf Coast remains the national norm. In a survey sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, 60 percent of cities reported that their police and fire radios could not communicate with their state's emergency operation centers. Eighty percent of city emergency networks were incompatible with those of federal agencies such as the Justice and Homeland Security departments. Among cities with major chemical plants, 97 percent reported they could not communicate with the plant's security force.

The thousands of pages of government e-mails and memos released by Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco late last week documented the impact of the region's communications breakdown as it crippled the response to the disaster at every level of government.

During Katrina, virtually every system failed: Internet communications, radio transmissions, cell phones, even backup gear such as satellite phones handed out by federal relief workers after the storm. Even when the equipment worked, officials from different agencies and jurisdictions could not talk with one another. Their radios were simply not compatible.

"People could not communicate," said Louisiana Sen. Robert Barham (R), chairman of the state Senate's homeland security committee. "It got to the point that people were literally writing messages on paper, putting them in bottles and dropping them from helicopters to other people on the ground."

Because of its ports and oil terminals, coastal Louisiana was considered after Sept. 11, 2001, to be at risk from terrorist attacks as well as from hurricanes. The state received $19 million in federal grants to upgrade its emergency communications network before Katrina, and much of the money was used to upgrade a radio system used by state police.

But most of the state's cities and parishes continue to use older systems, some of them incompatible with those of state agencies or even their neighbors. Despite efforts by state police -- backed by federal grants -- to strengthen Louisiana's network before the storm, the improvements were not enough, Barham said. "This is bigger than a Louisiana issue," he said. "The federal government should use the lessons from Louisiana and provide more resources."


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