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Wednesday, October 5, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Computer cavalry rides in after Katrina

The Associated Press

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 as 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.

The spontaneous wireless projects are spurring interest in how to deploy the latest in communications technology and expertise in a more organized fashion after future disasters.

In Louisiana and Mississippi, Katrina initially knocked out 2.8 million phone lines, more than 1,600 cellphone towers and more than 420,000 cable-TV connections that also can serve as Internet links, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

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. "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."

In Bay St. Louis, help also 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 flooded hospital in Bay St. Louis. .

Within five hours of the NPS team's arrival, anyone with a laptop at the hospital could send e-mail, surf the Web, send instant messages and make Internet phone calls.

To expand coverage, the NPS students used Wi-Fi equipment to set up additional wireless access points and mesh them 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 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. Many displaced residents have used the link to contact their insurance companies, Steckler said.

The ad-hoc efforts have helped city officials in stricken areas get back on their feet.

"It opened us up and allowed us to get more help and more aid in here," said Gavagnie.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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