"Hillbilly Wireless Guys"


In These Times reports:

During a September 27 House hearing, discredited ex-FEMA chief and one-time horse-whisperer Michael Brown was asked about the profound failures of communication among those supposedly in charge of responding to Katrina. Many first responders were cut off from communication for days, and local elected officials were reduced to using TV and radio network appearances to communicate with the federal government. What he was supposed to do, he retorted, "Drop a whole phone and radio system into New Orleans, lock, stock and barrel?"

Well, that's just what Paul Smith and about a dozen fellow wireless technicians did. With just a modest amount of equipment, their all-volunteer team managed to get wireless internet and phone service into a dozen shelters in northern Louisiana in less than a week.

An interesting interview ensues with Smith, who works for the Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology. This being In These Times, no one challenges him when he complains that "we have a market system in which we build for today, not for the eventualities of the future." (He goes on to complain about the central-planning decisions of those exemplary free-market institutions, Congress and the FCC.) But it's a very useful ground-eye view of how the federal bureaucracy's communication system broke down, and how a network of volunteers was able to do better.

NEXT: Give Me Land, Lots of Land

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  1. “local elected officials were reduced to using TV and radio network appearances to communicate with the federal government”

    Poor babies. If there’s one thing local elected officials hate, it’s TV and radio appearances. And there’s one thing they hate more than being on TV, it’s exerting influecne over the federal government.

    So having to go on TV to demand things from the feds, while everyone could see them, must have been really tough for them.

  2. So the head of a gov’t agency is wholly ignorant of the technology that could have a direct and beneficial impact on his job.
    It seems that the only gov’t office with a clue as to current tech is the FCC, and that’s just because they are forcing it onto the marketplace.

  3. Something else that FEMA Claus didn’t have to pull out of its big bag of goodies. Add it to the list, I suppose.

    Wouldn’t want to have local officials in charge of communication in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, would we? Better to have the feds spend mucho buckos on a one-size-fits-none solution that they can airlift in from a military base somewhere instead of, you know, food, water, and medicine.

  4. Yeah, this is totally a federal/local issue.

    New Orleans City Hall being such a hotbed of forward looking IT geeks.

    Someone’s still smarting about last month’s melee.

  5. They taught me in government classes that the best, most efficient way to get things done and decisions made is not to be in constant contact with your Federal counterparts via phone/fax/email, but rather to go on television and complain about stuff. So, really, this was all a blessing in disguise — in fact, you can see how well everything turned out!

  6. There was a great story in the 10/8 issue of National Journal on states and localities took matters into there own hand to help LA amid the federal incompetence.

    “Plaquemines Parish juts out into the Gulf of Mexico just south of New Orleans. It’s 80 miles long and in places is just 8 miles wide, and on a map it looks like a tree branch waiting for one bad storm to snap it off. No place in Louisiana is more exposed or more remote, and nowhere would you less expect to hear the singsong accent of Minnesotans.But in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, there they were: a six-person squad from the sheriff’s office of Hennepin County, Minn. Alongside them were sheriffs’ deputies from Massachusetts and Kentucky, National Guard troops from New Mexico, and countless other contingents. All were linked by the Minnesotans’ high-tech command van. And very few of them had been sent by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. These helpers came to Plaquemines and places like it from no single source, through no comprehensive organizing process, at no national leader’s command. They came from across America, as officially or as ad hoc as they had to, because they wanted to help in the aftermath of one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.

    “On Monday, September 5, a week after Katrina, the Minnesotans arrived with the solution. Four days earlier, their chief, Hennepin County Sheriff Patrick McGowan, had called an old National Sheriffs’ Association colleague in Louisiana and actually gotten through. ‘They were just overwhelmed down there,’ said McGowan; above all, ‘they needed communications’ — and McGowan had a $2 million mobile command post. That was Thursday. All day Friday, Hennepin County officers scrambled to get their gear ready. Meanwhile, Minnesota state officials raced to secure permission and contacts, bypassing FEMA and going directly to Louisiana state officials under a state-to-state Emergency Management Assistance Compact. On Saturday morning, the Hennepin County team hit the road. On Monday afternoon, they reached the Louisiana sheriff who had requested their help, only to find that he had already gotten his communications working again. So he sent them down the road, deeper into the damage, to the next parish — which turned out not to need them, either. Then, as night fell, they went to the next parish after that, to land’s end for Louisiana: Plaquemines.Within 24 hours, the Minnesotans had set up their antenna, handed out spare radios, and gotten troops and deputies alike onto a common network with long-range coverage. ‘That was critical,’ said Guard Lt. Col. Almeter; with it, ‘we were able to rescue people.'”

  7. WTF is Hennepin County, Minnesota doing with a $2mm mobile command post, anyway?

  8. Obviously it is our Homeland Security dollars at work. All the states get equal dollars regaurdless of the threat. They have to spend it on something.

  9. “Drop a whole phone and radio system into New Orleans, lock, stock and barrel?”

    I used to work for a company that made things like that. They’re called “flyaway packs” or something like that. A satellite uplink, a cellular antenna and processor, and a switch to connect it all together.

    The military uses them sometimes for relief missions in crappy areas. The aid workers, doctors, engineers and so on can just whip out their cell phones and make a call from anywhere nearby to anywhere in the world.

  10. “Drop a whole phone and radio system into New Orleans, lock, stock and barrel?”

    Taking into account Brown’s background, he could have called in the Pony Express.

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