Terry Huval, LUS director, writes a guest editorial in yesterday’s newspaper that highlights the emergency and recovery lessons being learned in the wake of Katrina and Rita. He notes that BellSouth’s antiquated copper technology has not served us well, and that the snail’s pace of reconstruction has slowed recovery, especially in New Orleans. He links that to the continued attempts by BellSouth to block Lafayette’s fiber, New Orleans’ WiFi networks, and the the way that the BellSouth’s law (the Local Government Fair competition Act) serves to prevent storm-torn communities from building infrastructure that would help the prepare for future hurricanes. Huval urges the people of the state to think of repealing the (un)Fair Competition Act as actually being emergency/recovery legislation that lets people help themselves.
Readers will not be surprised to learn I think Mr. Huval is dead right.
We in Louisiana have learned that what is most needed in emergency situations is for “the big guys,” if they’re not going to stand up and help, to at least stand out of our way while we help ourselves. In Erath and Delcambre folks got in their fishing boats and went out to pluck their friends and neighbors from the rooftops. When the boats pulled up to where the flood water came over the road local deputies were there to direct them toward people who needed out. By the time the cameras showed up it was all over so you never saw dramatic shots of helicopter rescues on national television. They just weren’t needed. In Erath, nobody asked permission to go in and help. They just did it themselves. Probably they’d learned from the flotilla of small boats that set out from Lafayette after Katrina a few weeks earlier loaded up with fellas that knew their way around shallow-draft boats and with emergency medical types distributed out one to a boat. They took off from Acadiana Mall for New Orleans. Everyone knows the story. Federal and Sate officials turned them back and sent them home–or tried to. Some of the boats simply pulled over, put in, and headed out. When the authorities tried to order them out they’d drop off people a bit away from the bank to wade the last bits and took off again until they ran out of gas. So by the time Rita rolled in folks around here had it figured out: You listen to the local guys who know what they are doing and ignore those big, self-important, guys that think they know “what’s best” for your friends and neighbors.
That’s what real disaster response is…it’s what it has to be. Nobody else, even if actually willing and eager to help, will be able to match on-the-ground-knowledge of what’s really needed that local people acting in their own community’s best interest will have. The big guy need to be there to help and if they are not helping need to get out of the way.
The situation in telecommunications is analogous and Huval is right to draw out the comparison. The Local Government (un)Fair Competition Act came into existence when important, smart guys at BellSouth and Cox went to other big, important guys in the State Legislature with a request. They wanted the responsible (wiser, brighter) guys in the legislature to tell local (foolish and ignorant) people what they could not do to help build up their community.
The (un)Fair Competition Act telling trying to tell locals whether and how to do what they think best for local needs is as foolish as the FEMA orders in New Orleans that told locals that they were forbidden to help out their neighbors. The solution is the same in both cases; the officials need to hear: “If you can’t be of help, at least get out of our way.”
You might think, that as long as local economies are struggling to get back on their feet after the storms that getting into the telecom business, however good an idea, would simply be out of reach. You’d be wrong. First the sort of municipal WiFi net that New Orleans transformed into a community network is relatively cheap–and that network was crucial in the first weeks after Katrina; it is now proven emergency technology. But Huval mentions “GO Zone” funds. I had to look it up; but what I found was impressive: there is a huge pot of special bond money that communities can dip into to rebuild after the storms that was authorized by the Gulf Opportunity Zone Act a few months after Katrina. And telecom is specifically one of the things for which it can be used. So there is inexpensive funding for rebuilding local telecom networks and building more storm-resistant nets. If the state will get out of our way and repeal BellSouth’s law. But the potential goes beyond emergency wifi networks.
Part of the story of New Orleans that hasn’t been adequately told was that much of the business district never lost services. My own personal domain and email is hosted out of a server farm in New Orleans. And I never lost a minute’s service during the whole Katrina period. That service (directnic, I highly recommend them.) stayed up and had a live web-cam through the storm and the worst weeks that followed. How? Mainly because they were mostly supplied by buried fiber-optic cable. We tend to forget that the internet was was designed to resist the ultimate disaster: atomic war. Buried utilities survive storms. Could we use GO Zone money to defend ourselves by burying the utilities? I don’t know.
But until the Local Government (un)Fair Competition Act is repealed local Louisiana governments won’t be able to take full advantage of recovery opportunities.