Emergency workers isolated and unable to call for help for themselves or others; radios and cell phones inoperable, and government unable to respond to a catastrophic event.
The chaos that followed Hurricane Katrina, vividly recounted in thousands of pages of documents recently released by Louisiana officials, had an eerie familiarity to members of the Sept. 11 commission who delivered their final report this week.
"On September 11, people died because police officers couldn't talk to firemen. And Katrina was a reenactment of the same problem," Thomas H. Kean, the commission co-chairman and former New Jersey governor, said in an interview. "It is really hard to believe this has not been fixed."
But four years after the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, Kean and the commission concluded, emergency communications networks in most U.S. cities still cannot sustain a major natural disaster or terrorist strike, despite pledges from Congress and the Bush administration to rapidly upgrade the networks and implement national standards to make it easier for emergency workers to talk with one another during crises.
In the commission's report card, the commission gave the federal government one of its five F's for not setting aside a frequency for first responders -- a grade that many experts agree the response to Katrina only underscored.
"The New Orleans calamity proved overwhelmingly the government's inability to solve chronic, fundamental problems with communications," said Reed Hundt, chairman of the Federal Communication Commission for six years in the 1990s. "No one in the government has shown leadership on this issue, and now the results are tragic."
Patchwork quilt of incompatible systems
The patchwork quilt of incompatible systems that existed in the Gulf Coast remains the national norm. In a survey sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, 60 percent of cities reported that their police and fire radios could not communicate with their state's emergency operation centers. Eighty percent of city emergency networks were incompatible with those of federal agencies such as the Justice and Homeland Security departments. Among cities with major chemical plants, 97 percent reported they could not communicate with the plant's security force.
The thousands of pages of government e-mails and memos released by Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco late last week documented the impact of the region's communications breakdown as it crippled the response to the disaster at every level of government.
During Katrina, virtually every system failed: Internet communications, radio transmissions, cell phones, and even backup gear such as satellite phones handed out by federal relief workers after the storm. Even when the equipment worked, officials from different agencies and jurisdictions could not talk with one another. Their radios were simply not compatible.
"People could not communicate," said Louisiana Sen. Robert Barham (R), chairman of the state Senate's homeland security committee. "It got to the point that people were literally writing messages on paper, putting them in bottles and dropping them from helicopters to other people on the ground."
Because of its ports and oil terminals, coastal Louisiana was considered after Sept. 11, 2001, to be at risk from terrorist attacks as well as from hurricanes. The state received $19 million in federal grants to upgrade its emergency communications network before Katrina, and much of the money was used to upgrade a radio system used by state police.
But most of the state's cities and parishes continue to use older systems, some of them incompatible with those of state agencies or even their neighbors. Despite efforts by state police -- backed by federal grants -- to strengthen Louisiana's network before the storm, the improvements were not enough, Barham said. "This is bigger than a Louisiana issue," he said. "The federal government should use the lessons from Louisiana and provide more resources."
As early as 3 a.m. Aug. 29 -- hours before the hurricane's eyewall reached crossed the Louisiana coastline -- some state police barracks began losing Internet connections. At 9 a.m., a 800-megahertz communication tower used by emergency workers in Larose stopped working.
By early afternoon, more towers had failed because of wind and water damage, and the surviving portions of the network were jammed -- "overwhelmed with emergency response traffic," according to a state police log. In the next two days, state dispatchers would log more than 1,900 distress calls. By the next day, flooding had swamped generators and knocked out many of the surviving towers.
Field reports and incident logs from that time reflect the frustration of police and rescue workers cut off from their commanders and dispatchers.
"Our current 800 radio system failed miserably in the time of need," wrote Capt. Wayne Brescher, a rescue team leader, in a report. "Cell phones were useless."
Meanwhile, rescue teams who crossed geographical and jurisdictional boundaries to perform missions encountered a different set of problems.
"It is difficult to coordinate missions with other police agencies, when every agency uses a separate radio system," states an after-action report by the state Wildlife and Fisheries Division, the agency responsible for waterborne rescues. "This causes confusion and delay."
The federal response was no better. In the days after the hurricane hit, the Federal Emergency Management Agency doled out scores of mobile satellite phones to emergency workers. But many of them -- perhaps half -- did not work or were judged too complicated to operate in the field, state police officials say.
The inability to communicate across jurisdictions -- known as "interoperability" in industry jargon -- is viewed as a critical weakness in the nation's defense against terrorism and natural disasters. A month after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration created Project Safecom, an umbrella program intended to spur the transition to more efficient, interoperable wireless communications systems for first responders. The While House has pledged $6.8 billion over five years to fund improvements in interoperability.
A study by the Government Accountability Office last year found that Safecom had made only "very limited progress," in part because it had "not received consistent executive commitment." Reflecting its lowly status within government, the project had been shuffled through three agencies and has been assigned four management teams in its first three years, government auditors found.
"The lesson that was reiterated by Katrina is the same lesson we should have learned from Sept. 11: Police, fire and medical personnel should be able to talk to one another throughout a metropolitan area," said Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, co-chair of the Conference of Mayors' Homeland Security Task Force.
The federal government must lead the effort to upgrade local systems, O'Malley said, because only it can set national standards and rules for interoperability. In addition, he said, cash-strapped U.S. cities simply cannot afford to buy new equipment, although some are trying. Baltimore recently spent $6 million to create what O'Malley described as a fully interoperable communications system across the city and surrounding suburbs.
Louisiana, which is rebuilding its communications network largely from scratch, is trying to do the same thing. Federal emergency funds are helping -- to an extent.
In the days after Katrina hit, as state and local officials scrambled to restore function to their ruined network of wrecked towers and flooded generators, FEMA approved the purchase of a new, $15.9 million system designed to be robust enough to survive most future hurricanes. The new system would also give the state a new level of interoperability, allowing state police and state officials easy access to emergency workers in the state's cities and parishes.
The problem is, hand-held police radios in many Louisiana parishes cannot tap into the new network. FEMA officials initially promised to buy the new radios, but balked after the price tag turned out to exceed $150 million, according to Louisiana officials who participated in the discussions.
Despite the mix-up, the new network offers advantages over the old one, and it will eventually bring interoperability to the state's smaller parishes, as they slowly replace older radios with new ones, said Col. Henry Whitehorn, head of Louisiana's state police.
Whitehorn only wishes the state possessed the network three months ago.
"There were places we were not able to get to because of inadequate communications," Whitehorn said. "If there is a next time, we hope the new system will be in place with enough redundancy to ensure that we can communicate with everyone. It will save lives."