In A Crisis, Will Your Phone Work?

Firefighter checks under a collapsed roof in the Lower Ninth Ward searching for missing people after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, Louisiana, 3-3-06
The Atlantic hurricane season - June 1st through Nov. 30th - is just six weeks away and for those who survived Katrina, and those with loved ones who did not, the approach to the dangerous side of the calendar is as ominous as it is silent.

There are numerous blue ribbon panels and government officials at all levels trying to figure out how best to get ready - and how to do a better job if the worst happens again - whether it be a natural disaster or a manmade one, like the Sept. 11 attacks.

Some of the solutions may require huge expenditures and big changes; but the infrastructure is already in place for one change that could make a big difference in times of emergency.

That's according to two telecommunications industry pioneers - Jeff Pulver and Tom Evslin - who have filed a petition asking the FCC to require phone companies to provide voicemail or call forwarding to customers whose phones are inoperable or inaccessible because of a disaster, terrorist attack or evacuation order.

The option to leave a message for anyone calling a non-working phone - for example, "I did survive the flood, am in Houston and will call you back, please leave a message" - or forward calls to another phone number - for example, a friend's house where an evacuee is temporarily staying - would kick in when a phone is unusable for 12 hours.

The idea, Evslin explains, is to give people - especially those who are low income and may not have cell phones or computers - a way to let loved ones and others know how they are - and just as important, where they are.

"Shame on us if we don't learn from Katrina," said Evslin, speaking at a conference on telecommunications issues earlier this month in Silver Spring, Md., arguing that the FCC should act quickly, even before the more wide-ranging decisions which are to be made to ramp up overall preparedness in the U.S.

Names, said Evslin, can be hard to trace - there are many people with the same name - but the ten digits which make up a phone number are highly specific to the particular person being called.

In the immediate chaos that followed the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the fates and whereabouts of countless flood victims became all but unknowable, with phones underwater or otherwise inaccessible as evacuees scattered to all parts of the U.S.

Worried relatives called phones that had out-of-order recordings or were simply never answered.

Rescue workers searched homes for people who had already evacuated, unnecessarily risking life and limb, wasting resources already stretched thin by the disaster.

Web sites and message boards sprang up to try to reunite the separated, the Federal Emergency Management Agency began registering flood victims, and non-profits of all types did their part to track the missing.

But it took a very long time.

Katrina came ashore on the Gulf Coast on August 29th; Hurricane Rita made landfall on Sept. 24th. But despite round-the-clock efforts by authorities, non-profit agencies and volunteers, it wasn't until March 16th that the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children was able to arrange a family reunion for the last of 5,192 cases of children who became separated from their families and were reported missing after the storms.

All but 12 were found alive and most, according to NCMEC, turned out to be living with relatives, family friends or other adults.