What's Brewin: Powering Through

New (and old) radios, open communications and a satellite bridge support relief efforts after Hurricane Gustav.

BATON ROUGE, La. - A visit to FEMA's Joint Field Office here in the wake of Hurricane Gustav showed that lessons indeed have been learned from Hurricane Katrina.

Ed Conley, a FEMA spokesman, said multiple federal agencies deployed more than 1,200 people to staff the JFO to help respond to requests from state and local officials, a number that well exceeded the initial response to Katrina.

These ranged from the obvious agencies one would expect to respond to a disaster: FEMA, various Defense Department units and the Health and Human Services Department. But scattered about the old shopping center here, which served as the JFO, were personnel from the Small Business Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and even the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, all working around the clock to ensure that needs of towns and parishes throughout Louisiana were met, whether it was loans, maps or environmental assessments.

In turn, FEMA met the basic needs of workers in the JFO with the most basic of provisions: MREs for breakfast, lunch and dinner; hard canvas cots to sleep on; and a lot of bottled water. Then the next day, more MREs and another night on a cot.

Talk to Anyone You Want

That's the message from the public affairs officers here, such as Hannah Vick, a FEMA spokeswoman, who said this policy was a dramatic contrast to post-Katrina, when interviews and the flow of information were tightly controlled.

Like many of the personnel in the JFO, Vick, who lives in Eau Claire, Wis., is a volunteer, ready and willing to head towards a disaster, not away from it.

No Radio Shortage

A lack of interoperable radios impeded communications between first responders after Katrina. But Frank Lalley, a FEMA telecommunications specialist, said the problem was solved by an effort during the past two years to field 15,000 land mobile radios that operate in the 700 megahertz band to state and local first responders in the southern third of the state, with FEMA picking up the tab for 5,000 of them.

The Satellite Bridge

Oswald Baldwin, a FEMA telecommunications manager from Denton, Texas, said first responder communications in Louisiana functioned much better after Gustav than Katrina.

But when outages did occur, his mobile emergency response support team was ready to bridge the gap. Public safety communications between the state's Emergency Operations Center and Houma, a town near the Gulf Coast, were cut due to an outage in a land line that linked radio systems in Houma to the operations center.

Baldwin said he helped resolve the problem by dispatching a FEMA satellite truck to Houma and another to the operations center, creating a 50,000 mile satellite bridge for pubic safety radio communications.

Plain Old Radio Keeps Things Cool

No power throughout the state meant many Louisiana residents had to rely on local radio stations for their information.

These stations not only provided basic information - such as where to get ice and food - they also engaged in a civil discourse with listeners to keep their cool.

The listeners responded by calling and urging everyone to be patient, to recognize the work of power crews and to please, please be polite while sitting in gas lines for three hours.

Plain old radio is alive, well and vital.

Thanks to a Few Good PAOs

I've spent the entire week in Louisiana, here at the JFO and the Army North Operational Command Post in Alexandria, La., and could not have done my job without the unstinting help from some superb PAOs: Patti Bielling at Army North, Don Manuszewski, with the Army North Defense Coordinating Element, and Conley and Vick from FEMA.

Thanks to you all.