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Tackling Swamped Communications

By Steve Rosenbush Gary Morgenstern is sitting at his desk in New Jersey, anxiously awaiting the next call from his 20-year-old daughter, Amanda. Over the weekend, she evacuated her apartment near Tulane University in flood- and storm-battered New Orleans, and headed west. Though his daughter is out of Hurricane Katrina's reach by now, Morgenstern remains concerned about her safety.

His fears have been compounded by the near-total communications blackout that the storm wreaked across the Southeast and beyond. Despite Amanda Morgenstern being well beyond the hurricane zone, her father can't place a call to her mobile phone because Katrina has knocked out so much equipment and the remaining networks are swamped with traffic.

MASSIVE OUTAGE. Hundreds of thousands of local phone lines are out of commission, forcing people to stay in touch the best way they can, using Web sites and blogs. "We didn't expect anything this catastrophic from the storm," says Morgenstern. "And now we're completely out of touch." The fact that he has spent his entire 28-year career at AT&T (T), working in the public relations department, hasn't given him access to any emergency lines, either. They're hard to come by.

Given the storm's severity, it was impossible to get an up-to-date assessment of the damage inflicted on communications networks. BellSouth (BLS), which serves most of the phone lines in the battered Southeast, posted bulletins on its Web site.

BellSouth said in its most recent damage assessment on Wednesday, Aug. 31, that up to 1.75 million customers on Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, where it is by far the dominant provider of phones, had lost service. Katrina may have unleashed the worst telecom outage in U.S. history. It was too early to say when service would be restored.

HOW TO BOOST RESILIENCY. A spokesman for Alltel (AT), a big provider of local and wireless phone service in the South, wasn't immediately available for comment. The company's Web site didn't offer storm updates, either.

Wireless outfits scrambled to restore service. Citing concern about flooding and loss of electrical power, Sprint Nextel (S) dispatched hundreds of engineers and technicians into the disaster zone. The fleet included several RVs and trucks outfitted with mobile cell-phone towers and satellite equipment.

AT&T also moved emergency equipment into the area. But since AT&T doesn't have the kind of local infrastructure that BellSouth and Alltel do, its operations weren't hit as hard. And traffic on the long-distance networks in the South remained at relatively normal levels because, as Morgenstern noted, "there's no one to call."

When the floodwaters subside, industry executives and state and federal regulators will no doubt resume a debate that began after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001: How can the U.S. make the nation's communications networks more resilient in the face of natural or manmade disaster?

DESPERATE MESSAGES. It's a complex challenge. Throwing up more cell towers and creating more central switching facilities isn't necessarily the answer because a strong wind can knock down two towers in its path just as easily as it can knock down one. Truck-based mobile-emergency equipment can solve only so much of the problem. Driving a truck laden with electrical equipment into an emergency flood zone like New Orleans, where two levees have already broken, presents a dangerous prospect.

With the traditional communications network in disarray, ordinary people turned to the Web. It was a solution for some, but not all. Even assuming that the Internet backbone works, users still need an online device such as a computer or cell phone to access it. But the message boards at sites like had thousands of postings, many reflecting pain and desperation. A message from a user called smovsoulja was posted Wednesday morning saying:

"I'm looking for my parents. BOBBY NATHAN and HELEN NATHAN, they live in New Orleans at 9411 Palm St. in the Hollygrove/Carrollton area. I last talked to them on Monday morning at 7 a.m., they were in their home on Palm St., when the power had just went out. If someone has any information on this area or these persons, it would be greatly appreciated."

The writer, who hails from Dallas, includes an e-mail address and phone number. Other posts warned of looting. NOLAatUGA wrote:

"Reports that I have heard have said that several of the larger houses on St. Charles have been pillaged, but beyond that I have not heard much on private residences."

"WE WEREN'T PREPARED." At least the age-old human communications network remains in place. Survivors and other affected people are talking about this storm to anyone who will listen, and they will no doubt do so for a long time. Gary Morgenstern says his family had experienced hurricanes in the past, since his daughter started as a freshman at Tulane.

In this case, "we weren't prepared," says Morgenstern, who was still trying to figure out where his daughter was and what happened to her apartment and car. As of mid-Wednesday, there wasn't any way to know.

Rosenbush is a senior writer for BusinessWeek Online in New York

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