Telephone company BellSouth Corp. yesterday estimated that it would cost $400 million to $600 million to repair the damage from Hurricane Katrina and said it could take four to six months to restore service in the hardest-hit areas of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast of Mississippi.
The Atlanta-based company, the dominant phone service provider in much of the South, stressed that those were preliminary estimates. It has not yet been able to survey all of its sites given the breadth of the area struck by the hurricane a week ago.
BellSouth said an estimated 1.1 million of its lines were out in the region, with 90 percent of these in what it calls the "red zone" -- New Orleans, areas north of the city and the Gulf Coast of Mississippi.
That is down from 1.75 million lines that were out late last week.
"Our best guidance, at this point, without having had the opportunity to physically survey and assess the full area, is $400 million to $600 million," BellSouth spokesman Jeff Battcher said of the company's estimated repair costs.
Technicians yesterday began surveying parts of New Orleans, where the company believes that the majority of its roughly 472,000 customers remain without service.
To protect its workers, BellSouth is sending armed guards to protect trucks of diesel fuel for those of its offices in the city that are running on generators, Battcher said.
Battcher said BellSouth's main hub in New Orleans, on Poydras Street, is operating and is a key switching point for long distance carriers such as MCI Inc., AT&T Corp. and Sprint Nextel Corp.
BellSouth's recovery is also vital to mobile phone providers, which typically depend heavily on land lines run by local phone companies to connect their wireless calls.
The major wireless providers said some of their calls are going through in New Orleans but service is still out in much of the city.
In contrast, most of these companies -- Verizon Wireless, Cingular Wireless and Sprint Nextel -- said they had made significant progress restoring service elsewhere in the region, including to Baton Rouge, La., and Mobile, Ala., as well as along parts of the Mississippi coast.
Public safety experts said Hurricane Katrina exposed two major weaknesses in emergency communications: a failure to deploy enough satellite phones and the lack of a national system for police, firefighters and medical personnel to talk with one another seamlessly.
In addition to disabling much of the regular telephone network in New Orleans and along the Mississippi coast, the storm damaged local police radio systems and made it much harder for emergency personnel to help those in need.
While there is little that can protect telephone lines, wireless towers and antennas from hurricane winds, experts said more satellite telephones -- which do not depend on ground infrastructure -- should have been in place before the storm, and mobile communications systems should have been quickly brought in after.
"My best guess is that one of the things that is going to come out of Louisiana and the Gulf Coast disaster is a discussion of some kind of federal drop-in communications capability," said K. Jack Riley, a Rand Corp. homeland security expert.
"Communications equipment that is self-powered and can be gotten in large numbers into a disaster scene to help with command and control . . . really has been one of the missing elements," he said.
Satellite phone makers described huge demand for their products as government agencies, relief groups and others sought to obtain reliable communications as well as spare batteries, solar chargers and car chargers.
"We are being flooded with calls from relief organizations, government agencies, who didn't have phones and who need them," said Liz DeCastro, a spokeswoman for Iridium Satellite LLC.