Hours after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast and knocked out telecommunications across much of the region, Mac Dearman visited shelters in northern Louisiana to connect telephones.
Dearman doesn't work for a phone company.
He owns a local wireless Internet service provider, and the gear he set up doesn't need a traditional phone network. It carries calls — as well e-mail and other data — over the Internet.
"In the first 24 hours after we plugged the phones in, there were 11 family members reunited," he said. "We got a hug every time we went into a shelter to make sure things are up and running all right."
Just as Katrina proved the vulnerability of traditional telephone and cellular networks, it also showed how Internet-based technologies could be used to speedily re-establish links with the outside world.
Dearman was not alone. Teams from large companies, private groups and the military converged on the Gulf Coast in ad hoc fashion to set up wireless networks, all the while battling bureaucracies that didn't seem to understand the agility and flexibility of the technologies being marshaled.
The spontaneous wireless projects by groups that simply wanted to help — government mandate or not — is spurring interest in how to deploy the latest in communications technology and expertise in a more organized fashion after future disasters.
"It's pretty clear that it was the folks out in the field who did some amazing heroics to get communications back up," said Carl Malamud, chief technology officer of the Center for American Progress think tank. "We need to move toward a system where people are empowered to do what they can do."
In Louisiana and Mississippi, Katrina initially knocked out 2.8 million phone lines, more than 1,600 cell phone towers and more than 420,000 cable TV connections that also can serve as Internet links, the Federal Communications Commission said.
Some quick-fix systems still in place
In some areas, the wireless networks hastily formed by geek volunteers served as a stopgap while traditional services were restored, often in a matter of days. But in the most devastated areas, they continue to be the link to the outside world.
"Nowadays, without communications, you're basically dead in the water," said Robert Gavagnie, fire chief of devastated Bay St. Louis, Miss. "In the old days you could get by without it. Nowadays, you've just got to have it."
Just days after Katrina struck, the FCC set up a clearinghouse where offers of equipment and expertise could be coordinated with the needs of the disaster area. The agency also eased rules for some advanced technologies.
When Dearman posted a call for help on an e-mail distribution list, the response exceeded his wildest expectations.
"There were trucks coming from all over the United States. This restored my faith in humanity," he said. "They showed up. They came up to my house, to my farm. Their trucks were loaded down with food and wireless gear."
Eventually, BellSouth donated additional bandwidth, and MCI donated a 45-megabit per second DS3 line that Dearman used to light up southern Mississippi, including Bay St. Louis, Waveland, Pearlington and Diamondhead. Trango Broadband also donated radio equipment to expand the network.
"Intel has called me half a dozen times in the last two weeks asking me what I needed. Cisco has donated three routers," he said. "Everybody has stepped up to the plate."
But such efforts were often stymied by run-ins with bureaucrats on the ground.
Sascha Meinrath, an Illinois-based community wireless project leader who worked with Dearman, said he participated in the FCC's Sept. 2 meeting but his group never got calls back from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Days, if not weeks ahead
His team headed into the devastated area anyway, and started setting up equipment.
"In the first couple weeks, we were often days if not a week more ahead of the next wave of support for the evacuees and for people on the ground," he said.
FEMA did not return a half dozen calls and e-mail messages seeking comment for this article. An FCC spokesman, David Fiske, requested a list of questions but did not call back.
Meinrath's project has lit up two dozen evacuee centers with Internet as well as a medical clinic in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans. A month after the disaster, teams are training local groups.
Malik Rahim, co-founder of a the Common Ground clinic in Algiers, praised the efforts and the pace at which the technology was deployed.
"Within a matter of hours, not days, we had functioning communications established," he said.
In Bay St. Louis, help came from a group based at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.
That team brought a number of vehicles, including a 33-foot RV loaded with Wi-Fi and satellite gear as well as emerging technologies for carrying high-bandwidth connections over a range of miles.
Commanders sent the team to the hospital in Bay St. Louis, which had been flooded by 4 feet of water.
"It was contaminated from the flood surge. It washed in raw sewage from a sewage plant and chemicals from a local chemical plant," said Brian Steckler, an NPS faculty member who led the team.
Postgrads to the rescue
Within five hours of the NPS team's arrival, anyone with a laptop at the hospital could send e-mail, surf the Web and send instant messages. With an Internet telephone, they could make and receive calls over the connection that's similar to a low-priced DSL link.
To expand coverage, the NPS students deployed Rajant Corp.'s BreadCrumb Wi-Fi equipment to set up additional wireless access points and mesh them together to form a single cloud that could extend for more than 10 miles. The military-grade equipment works even if one node goes down.
The Internet connection also was extended dozens of miles via the emerging standard called WiMax, which has mostly been deployed in limited trials and offers data transfer speeds of 45 megabits per second.
At the end of the WiMax link, Wi-Fi was again used so that laptops and Internet phones could connect.
"The general public is using this for the Web to go their insurance companies," Steckler said. "Before we came, they couldn't even call them, let alone go to them on the Web."
The ad hoc wireless communications efforts have helped city officials in stricken areas begin to get back on their feet.
"It opened us up and allowed us to get more help and more aid in here," Gavagnie said. "It was just a great help."
Yet even the NPS team, which was sent in by the military, had early run-ins with FEMA, which had taken over jurisdiction of the hospital parking lot where the team was working.
"We had to ask FEMA for permission to practically do anything, including use the outhouses," Steckler said.