Can Our Cities Cope with Crisis?

After Katrina and September 11, the inadequacies of disaster-response communications are apparent. Fortunately, some solutions are, too

On August 31, 2005, with New Orleans in chaos and in dire need of outside help, I and other city personnel had to scrounge for any communications connection to the rest of world. Hundreds of cell towers were blown down, and the entire ground-based telecommunications infrastructure was largely destroyed and underwater. The only way we were finally able to connect to the outside world was through one single Cisco (CSCO) router left in the ruins of a looted office store.

We took the router and other looted and abandoned equipment and rode in a Humvee through the heart of a once-vibrant city in the midst of a human disaster. We finally found one live connection in the Hyatt hotel in the heart of New Orleans. There we used an Internet phone account as the main line for a stitched-together full-voice network—used eventually by the city, federal, and state agencies, and even our main power company. And finally, for the first time since Katrina had struck, New Orleans could communicate with the outside world.

This experience of scrambling for a link to the outside world, with so much hanging in the balance, is my motivation in writing this open letter to all first responders, citizens, and leaders of our U.S. cities.

When Katrina struck, communications, or rather the lack thereof, became a central issue in responding to the disaster. In the midst of the hurricane and for days after, we had no way for federal, state, and local first responders to efficiently coordinate communications amongst themselves.

With the standard ways of communicating out of commission, medical emergency personnel couldn't take calls and effectively route response teams. National Guard troops couldn't be sent to rescue trapped citizens. The disaster, which unfolded on CNN, nearly destroyed our city in those early days. Suffering continued for many days after the levees broke.

Fortunately, after the disaster, a handful of companies at the forefront of the emerging Wi-Fi revolution rushed in to equip New Orleans with new ways of communicating. By helping us set up a wireless mesh network, these Wi-Fi pioneers helped us—and other Gulf communities—connect with each other, as well as with the outside world.

Their on-the-fly Wi-Fi systems gave us the means to overcome the barriers built into our old communications system. In short, they gave us a vital lifeline that facilitated the beginning of the city's recovery.

Now, one year later, I can say that this experience has taught me and those around me so much more about the true power of different approaches and possibilities in applying wireless networks and other technologies than probably any city official would otherwise ever have the opportunity to see and learn. In the wake of any disaster, it's crucial that first responders and others on the scene be able to communicate early. We learned much here, but three basic facts emerged that we believe all city officials and first responders must know:

1. State and local agencies need to put in place and truly practice joint disaster response plans as a group. Separate city, state, or federal procedures and drills test a narrow, localized scenario that will never truly happen in such an isolated way.

2. Overreliance on "hardened" land-line-based facilities can cause failure in basic government mechanics in a large-scale disaster. More flexible and adaptive wireless technologies can better withstand a terrorist attack or a natural disaster than legacy networks, as many wireless approaches are inherently self-healing.

3. Public-safety needs and economic development can be combined in one singular approach for communications. We have put together an economically viable free wireless network available to the public so that they know how and where to access it in an emergency, while also delivering an acceptable return on investment in times of no disaster. This same Wi-Fi network will serve as an additional network for law enforcement and city services in times of crisis.

We hope we never again face an emergency of the magnitude created by Katrina. But at least now we know we are better equipped than ever to deal with whatever does happen and are on a road to better protect and rebuild the world-class City of New Orleans.

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