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Uneasy about the Big Easy?

One of the things that struck me as most chilling about the last time that a hurricane visited destruction on New Orleans' was that there I was, several thousand miles away, and I could find out arguably more about the scale of devastation and timeframe of likely rescue than the people stranded on their roofs, with their homemade SOS banners, awaiting rescue. It struck me that for all our technological advancement, when it came to the crunch ” the distress signals that people were using belonged to the beginning of the last century rather than our own.

Fast forward from 2005 to 2008 and the arrival of yet another hurricane passing through the Gulf Coast states with potentially devastating consequences. It seems that things have changed and mobile phone network companies have realised that they have possibly one of the most important roles to play during such an emergency.

During Katrina, power lines and basestations were quickly knocked out. This time, companies like T-Mobile had Cells-On-Wheels on standby that could be moved in to boost wireless communications capacity in damaged areas, whilst microwave radio equipment had been brought in to ease data communication from the cell sites to T-Mobile's network switches, in the event that fixed lines failed. And there were portable generators at their disposal, in preparation for inevitable power failures.

At a user level, there was widespread mention that text messaging was a more reliable form of communication than voice calls. Meanwhile, text alerts detailing information like the strength of the storm and likely trajectory, plus practical advice such as availability of hotels and emergency shelters, have helped provide people with information they could only have dreamt of during Katrina (whilst no doubt ensuring that Gustav is a bit of a commercial bonanza for some!).

Apparently, during Katrina, the federal agency had plenty of satellite phones at their disposal, but people didn't know how to use them. Meanwhile, it was reported that emergency personnel were using incompatible communications systems. It looks like Gustav still posed a communications challenge to emergency responders, as they still use incompatible networks. The FCC had planned to allocate radio spectrum for a national emergency network, but it had failed to find a private bidder to run the network when it was auctioned earlier this year. Maybe this event will prompt the US government to take it into state hands?

And for those of us who are again, very far from the action, its worth noting that, thanks to doppler radar updates every three minutes, the satellite images of the affected area are being updated every 15 minutes on Google Earth.

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