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SEPARATE STATEMENT OF
COMMISSIONER MICHAEL J. COPPS
Re: Report and Recommendations to the Federal Communications
Commission, from the Independent Panel Reviewing the Impact of Hurricane
Katrina on the Communications Networks.
Ten months ago, the nation viewed with horror the images of destruction
coming out of the Gulf Coast. Many of us found it nearly impossible to
believe that such dislocation and suffering could occur in our country,
the wealthiest and most technologically-advanced in the world. I visited
the Coast with Chairman Martin and other telecommunications leaders in the
days after Katrina, and I can tell you that none of us will ever forget
the images of devastation we witnessed.
It is now clear that the causes of our national failure were multiple,
including serious breakdowns in leadership, planning, engineering,
policing, and emergency management. But it is also common knowledge - on
both sides of the political aisle - that the failure of our national
communications system played a terrible role in exacerbating all of these
problems. As historian Douglas Brinkley puts it: "That was the
consensus, the one fiasco everyone agreed on - whatever else Katrina did
to New Orleans, it had clearly broken down all standard modes of
Today's report does an admirable job documenting how our public and
private communications networks failed during the storm and were not
repaired nearly quickly enough in its wake. The country owes an enormous
debt of gratitude to those who served on the Panel, to Nancy Victory who
chaired it, and to the many individuals who testified before it or
participated in compiling this report. They did so without compensation,
while holding down full-time jobs, and solely out of a spirit of public
service. I cannot thank them enough for their hard work and dedication.
The Panel's report describes our country's communications shortfalls in
the dispassionate, objective language of the professional engineer. This
is entirely fitting and proper. For now that the Gulf Coast has begun the
arduous process of rebuilding, our task - indeed our solemn duty - here in
Washington is to learn all that we can from this tragedy. We must ensure
that we are better prepared as a nation for the next disaster, whether it
be another hurricane (possibly even stronger than Katrina), an earthquake,
or a terrorist attack. Sadly, if we can be sure of anything, it is that
there will be a next disaster and that we are not prepared for it.
Each failure of communications documented in this report is also a story
of human suffering and often even loss of life. Consider the story of
Lafon Nursing Home of the Holy Family in New Orleans, where 100 elderly
patients found themselves left behind to weather the storm. On the third
harrowing day, "They finally caught a break. Someone's cell phone chirped
to life, offering communication with the outside world." This momentary
lifeline allowed a social worker to contact her brother in Atlanta who
eventually managed to charter a private bus to bring the patients to
safety. But not all of them - rescue workers eventually recovered 22
The fact that "within one week after Katrina, approximately 80 percent of
wireless cell sites were up and running" is therefore cold comfort
indeed. If these sites had been up and running sooner, would we have had
fewer stories like Lafon?
Measured in these terms, this report is a shocking indictment of the
disaster readiness of our existing communications networks. Put simply,
it concludes that both our public safety and commercial networks: (1) are
not capable of operating without power for more than a day or two, (2) are
not designed with sufficient redundancy, and (3) can withstand wind and
rain but not flooding. This is true of the wireless and wireline networks
that all of us rely upon to call 911 and our families during a crisis. It
is also true of the multiple networks that police officers, firefighters,
and other first responders rely upon to protect us in cases of emergency.
Because power outages, multiple sources of disruption, and flooding are
all entirely predictable outcomes in New Orleans and elsewhere, it seems
clear that we need to take immediate and serious corrective action.
By way of contrast, it appears that our electric utility companies have
developed networks that both survived the storm and managed to operate
during the aftermath, even with the power outages. These are the private
networks that the companies use to communicate with their employees and
monitor the status of their facilities. The utility companies' networks
worked better during the storm and its aftermath, the report explains,
because these companies designed their systems: (1) "to remain intact . .
. following a significant storm event," (2) "with significant onsite
back-up power supplies (batteries and generators)," (3) with redundant
fixed and wireless backhaul, and (4) with staff "focus[sed] on continuing
maintenance of network elements (for example, exercising standby
generators on a routine basis)." For heaven's sakes - shouldn't our
public safety and commercial networks be built with the same concerns in
In light of these sobering conclusions, I think that the central question
raised by the report is how - and not whether - the communications
industry should begin to incorporate more rigorous standards into how it
constructs and maintains networks. To be fair, I recognize that there are
important concerns about cost and scalability in incorporating innovations
developed by utility companies into public safety and commercial
networks. But, at a minimum, let's begin by confronting the issue.
For these reasons, I appreciate my colleagues' willingness to open a
comprehensive rulemaking addressing how we can improve the reliability and
disaster readiness of our nation's communications networks. I am
especially pleased that we seek comment on whether voluntary
implementation is enough or whether we need to consider other measures.
The most important thing, of course, is that we be certain the job is
getting done. By the first anniversary of Katrina, I hope and expect we
can have new rules in place that will improve our nation's communications
and protect the public safety.
Even before we complete our new rulemaking, the Commission can and should
move forward with a number of the Panel's recommendations. Of particular
importance, we need to complete our pending proceeding to overhaul the
antiquated Emergency Alert System (EAS). The report tells us that "a
fairly large percentage of the public likely were uninformed" about the
progress of the storm. We need to do better, especially for our disabled
and non-English-speaking citizens who are poorly served by our current
broadcast-based systems. I believe the Panel is on the right track in
saying the Commission needs to be thinking about extending EAS to newer
wireless and IP-based devices.
I am also glad that we seek comment on whether, and how, the Commission
should position itself as a clearinghouse of ideas for better preparing
organizations of every size for the next disaster. I have advocated this
approach for a long time. Why should every hospital, day care center,
nursing home, charitable organization, and small business have to start at
square one, devising its own plan, developing its options, figuring out
how to respond to a crisis, as if no one else has been down this road
before? How much better it would be if they could call someone - say the
FCC - and talk to experts who could tell them what has been tried and
works and what has been tried and doesn't work, and give them a hand along
Finally, I want to emphasize again my conviction that the FCC must be
front and center when it comes to safeguarding the nation's communications
security. This agency has the best people and the best expertise in
government on communications. As Title I of our enabling statute makes
clear, we also have a statutory duty to ensure the safety of our people
through secure communications networks. We therefore must continually ask
ourselves: Are we doing absolutely everything within our power to make
sure that our institutional knowledge and competence are being fully and
properly used? To the extent they aren't, we fail our charge. I am not
now, and never have been, in favor of waiting for others to do our job.
At the end of the day, the Commission's goal should be do such a good job
that communications is not a focus in the aftermath of a disaster. It
should be an afterthought or not a thought at all. Police and other first
responders, hospital workers, nursing home staff, and concerned family
members should be free to focus on their primary missions. They should
not have to worry, in the middle of a crisis, about whether their
communications equipment will work. Unfortunately, the Katrina experience
shows us that we as a nation have not met our responsibilities. The only
question now is whether - as a new hurricane season is upon us - we will
accept our challenge and develop solutions to the problems this report so
carefully identifies. History will not and should not forgive us if we
fail to do so.
See also Final Report of the Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate
the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina, H.R. Rep. No.
109-377, at 165 (2006), available at
http://katrina.house.gov/full_katrina_report.htm ("The near total failure
of regional communications degraded situational awareness and exacerbated
problems with agency coordination, command and control, logistics, and
search and rescue operations."); Ivor Van Heerden and Mike Bryan, The
Storm (Viking 2006), at 95 ("Simply put, along with everything else during
Hurricane Katrina, we had a ridiculous, tragic failure to communicate.")
Douglas Brinkley, The Great Deluge (HarperCollins 2006), at 215.
Anne Hull and Doug Struck, "A City's Most Helpless Left To Fend for
Themselves," Washington Post (Sept. 23, 2005).
Report at 9.
See e.g., The Storm at 62 ("The nursing home trade group for Louisiana
concluded after the flood that at least two thirds of the city's
fifty-three nursing homes were not evacuated, with tragic results.")
Nor were the military's systems anything close to adequate for the task.
As today's report discusses, in order to communicate with civilian first
responders, the military was reduced to using human runners to carry
messages and, in one case, to dropping a message in a bottle from a
helicopter. Report at 26.
Id. at 12-13.
See also Mike Scott, Harrison County, MS: Radio System Weathers the Storm
in Mississippi, 9-1-1 Magazine, Jan/Feb 2006, at 33 ("The normal
construction standard looks at 100-year flood plans. ... In public safety,
we have to look at 500-year flood plans.").
Report at 28.
Federal Communications Commission FCC 06-83