Katrina tests net service providers

The hardest-hit U.S. Gulf areas were wiped out during and after Hurricane Katrina, though it wasn’t for lack of some extraordinary efforts by skeleton carrier crews who remained behind to keep equipment online as windows shattered around them and New Orleans was evacuated.

TelCove, a competitive local exchange carrier (CLEC) in the eastern U.S., managed to keep its New Orleans switching office running but had no way of telling whether services were being delivered. “We’re not sure what’s out,” said Myles Falvelle, a spokesman for the provider. “There’s no people out there to say if service is up or not in a particular building.”

As U.S. Army troops entered New Orleans Thursday, the FCC sought help from CLECs to inventory what services they had running and what their needs were for fuel to run generators. The goal was to provide critical services necessary for recovery personnel, Falvelle said.

Phone companies already were granted extraordinary authority to port numbers to out-of-state locations – something that is normally time consuming, if allowed at all. For instance, CLEC provider U.S. LEC ported the numbers of New Orleans Hilton Hotels to Hilton facilities outside the storm zone, so when people called to check on guests, someone was there to answer the phone, said Aaron Cowell, CEO of U.S. LEC.

With communications out in the most-heavily damaged areas, people were unable to find out how loved ones fared. Jerald Sheets, senior Unix systems administrator for The Weather Channel Interactive in Atlanta, who formerly worked as a Unix administrator for a nonprofit hospital in Baton Rouge, La., said, “We still can’t find some family members.”

For most of the week telco crews assigned to repairs in Mississippi and New Orleans could not get in because roads were inaccessible and it was still too dangerous to dispatch workers, said BellSouth spokesman Joe Chandler.

BellSouth would not say how many central offices were knocked out but said 1.4 million lines in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama were affected by the storm. This includes lines served by central offices that resorted to back-up generators for power but whose fuel would soon run out.

In areas where people were evacuated and the roads wiped out, the company still doesn’t know exactly what caused some of the central offices to drop offline. “The picture is still real sketchy for us,” Chandler said. “We’re trying to gain access to parts of the network.”

Landline outages also shut down cellular networks, cutting off the T-1s that link cell towers to the wired network, said Patrick Kimball, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless. Some cell facilities with back-up generators kept working, enabling some people to call out.

Cellular operators know which cell transmitter/receivers get the most use so can target them for first repair, said Ritch Blasi, a spokesman for Cingular Wireless. The company had cells on wheels and on light trucks ready to roll in as soon as it had clearance, he said.

Crews at Internet domain registrar DirectNIC weathered the storm at the company’s French Quarter office. One member posted a blog about the experience, describing the storm, damage, looting and mayhem as reported to him via police stationed in the building.

In Metairie, La., which is adjacent to New Orleans, U.S. LEC posted a two-man crew to keep its switches up and running. The two lived in New Orleans and worked for days without knowing the fate of their homes, Cowell said.

They kept the node running through Wednesday, when they ran out of fuel and had to power down the Lucent voice and data switches. Police stationed in the building pulled out Tuesday, making it less safe to stay, Cowell said.

Network World Senior Editor Denise Dubie contributed to this story.

Related link:

Hotel IT staff begin the road back after Katrina

Red Cross looks to IT for post-Katrina recovery

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