New Orleans has been an emergency communications disaster, says U.S. News & World Report. Residents couldn’t alert rescuers to their whereabouts. Rescue workers couldn’t get in touch with headquarters or with each other. Police turned back trucks with repair crews and supplies because no one had been able to authorize their entrance into the ruined city. Yet in 2002, when New Orleans hosted the first post-9/11 Super Bowl, local, state, and federal officials communicated with ease. This time, the generator that powered the city’s main emergency communications transmitter was shut down by hurricane debris.
A rudimentary state police “mutual aid” radio transmitter powered from the Superdome was slowed by heavy demands, and floodwaters forced the evacuation of the city’s fire and police dispatch centers. The breakdown of emergency communications will be a key topic at hearings planned on Capitol Hill. Disaster response experts hope the Katrina chaos will “serve as a wake-up call,” says John Cohen, senior homeland security policy adviser for Massachusetts. Federal grants for upgrading major emergency radio systems continue to fall well short of the billions needed to provide true nationwide integration. Because of loopholes, TV broadcasters have been able to hold on to the radio frequency earmarked by the government for a nationwide emergency communications grid.