Video: A failure to communicate

By Chip Reid Correspondent
NBC News
updated 9/23/2005 6:35:09 PM ET 2005-09-23T22:35:09

When first responders arrived in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, one of the biggest dangers they faced was their inability to communicate with each other.

Just ask Officer Brian Byer of the Maryland State Police Department. His team was rescuing stranded residents when a military helicopter swooped down.

"He was hovering right above us and waving a plastic bottle out the window," recalls Byers. "He threw the bottle down and inside was a note."

The message in the bottle warned of a dangerous gas leak just ahead.

Maj. Mike Slocum of Louisiana’s Rapides Parish Sheriff’s Department says when his unit arrived their radios and telephones went dead.

"There was no communication, so we kind of went blind," says Slocum. "It was like driving without your headlights at night."

They found people dying in the streets with no way to call for an ambulance. Many first responders had to run to find help.

"That's really sad," says James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, "because runners really go back to the stone ages."

For years Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has been calling for a major investment in disaster communications.

"I think Americans should be angry that we failed our responsibilities, partciularly after 9/11," he says. On Sept. 11, 2001, McCain adds, many lives were lost, because first responders couldn't communicate.

Who's to blame? McCain says first, Congress, and second, TV broadcasters who, he says, have refused to give up space on the airwaves that first responders need.

In its defense, the National Association of Broadcasters says "local television stations provide a lifeline service" to viewers during disasters.

McCain hopes Katrina will finally force broadcasters and Congress to act.

But, for those in the path of Hurricane Rita, he says, it's too late.

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