PR professionals improvise as Hurricane Katrina wrecks havoc on comms infrastructure

When Hurricane Katrina battered down the Gulf Coast, it destroyed nearly everything in its wake: houses, bridges, and what seemed to be the most critical element to a successful recovery effort: the communications infrastructure.

When Hurricane Katrina battered down the Gulf Coast, it destroyed nearly everything in its wake: houses, bridges, and what seemed to be the most critical element to a successful recovery effort: the communications infrastructure.

Katrina was a horrific reminder of just how much society depends on communications and just how quickly things can turn drastic when they are missing.

Butch Kinerney, public affairs specialist for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), acknowledged the communications challenges; she said the government's declarations that help was on the way did not reach the displaced community during the first week because of power failures.

"Quite frankly, there is no media out there [for the victims]," Kinerney says. "There's no electricity, so they're not able to see the television reports."

Instead, Kinerney says that the media served as a way to communicate with communities farther away from the disaster's epicenter. "The people [the government] is communicating to through the media are in Ohio and New Jersey and Washington state," Kinerney says. "Much of the TV stuff is good for ratings, but not necessarily for helping the victims."

Kinerney says that FEMA spent the early part of the crisis working hard on getting information to the displaced using AM and FM radio, though that only served the few people who had radio access and working batteries.

Also, the media was eager to discuss issues not yet pertinent. Kinerney says that FEMA immediately started receiving questions from the media about the long-term effects, such as how insurance claims might be handled once the area was drained and damage asses. In those situations, Kinerney says he needed to be uncharacteristically abrupt.

"I said, 'This is not as immediate as the rescue efforts; we'll worry about the long-term implications later,' " Kinerney says.

Hence, speaking on Friday when the situation was dire, Kinerney says that there was a lot going on that the public was not seeing in the media.

For example, FEMA employed "community relations" staff to go door-to-door to all of the outlying regions to hand out information in what Kinerney said was PR the "old-fashioned way." He said that the community relations staff included translators specializing in a number of languages, including a variety of Creole dialects.

Jolie Shifflet, public affairs specialist for the Coast Guard, says that the storm knocked down the agency's computer system and some of its control towers, making it incredibly difficult to communicate with both its PIOs on the scene and the victims needing help.

Shifflet described workers going to Starbucks to use its wireless connection to communicate with Coast Guard bases. But Shiflett says the addition of more phone lines near the affected areas has aided communications.

FEMA received the brunt of the criticism for what critics call a slow response, but New Orleans native Gloria Dittus, CEO of Washington DC-based Dittus Communications, said FEMA was as confounded by communications difficulties as anyone.

Referring to an exchange much discussed on the internet, where CNN reporter Soledad O'Brien lambasted FEMA director Michael Brown for his not being briefed on critical matters such as the number of displaced in the New Orleans Convention Center, Dittus pointed to the poor communications.

"When Brown got on television the other day and [admitted to not knowing] there were 10,000 people in the convention center, it's because there was no one at the Convention Center able to alert anyone," Dittus says. "Everybody can point fingers all they want to and the juicy quote is to blame someone, but everyone is trying their damnedest to get people out of there."

Dittus spoke with PRWeek as she was preparing to head down to the affected region last Saturday on a bus filled with supplies.

By the end of the first week, people were finally being placed into shelters where the communication situation was still poor. But private organizations stepped in to aid the communications efforts. Working with FEMA and the Red Cross, DirectTV provided satellite television to the displaced shelters in the area.

Bob Marsocci, VP of communications for DirectTV, says the company also provided a dedicated channel full of updated text information about the hurricane. In addition, those presumed missing and their family members were encouraged to provide messages of reaching safety or calls for missing loved ones to scroll at the bottom of the screen.

"Communication is vital, but it's a challenge because people don't have access to phone lines," Marsocci says.

Marsocci says that the company also had begun reaching out to state and federal officials, offering them the opportunity to use the channel to convey relevant messages to the recovery effort.

Marsocci spoke to PRWeek soon after the company had successfully installed television access at the Houston Astrodome, where many of the evacuees were staying. At the Astrodome, an SBC representative spoke with Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren about the company's donated installation of phones enabled for free long-distance.

Steve O'Keefe, executive director of Patron Saint Productions and VP of the International Association of Online Communicators (IAOC), also pushed for private volunteers, maintaining a one-man appeal for water and other needed goods. O'Keeefe himself is a displaced New Orleans resident.

"The time is here for heroics for those brands and companies to do what they can to get water to those people," O'Keefe says. He directly contacted the communications heads of the International Water Bottlers Association, Pepsi-Cola, and Coca Cola, asking them to use their private helicopters to drop water and posted their responses on the IAOC's blog.

"Communications at the lowest level are working fine, people are able to get block-by-block reports over the telephone or online through messages boards," says O'Keefe. "But communications at the highest level have broken down; there's an inability to get water dropped onto the highways. It's a shocking disgrace."

Private organizations weren't the only ones volunteering communications support. The scope of the disaster - over 90,000 square feet - made it difficult for on-duty FEMA PIOs to cover all of the affected areas. Private citizens made up the slack by answering a call from Kinerney.

Kinerney put out a request for state emergency management PIOs to volunteer down in the Gulf States. The National Association of Government Communicators placed the request on its e-mail listserv and soon Kinerney was so inundated by replies that he was unable to reply to all of the e-mails.

"Right now we have everyone we can use; we're grateful for the support and the Herculean response from the community," Kinerney says.

Kinernery said the area that PIOs needed to cover was even larger than the affected region because the evacuation of displaced victims to places like San Antonio, Dallas, and Atlanta required PIO presences there.

"Wherever there are two or more displaced victims, there will be a camera there," Kinerney said.

Ed Brennan, COO of marketing firm Harrison Leifer DiMarco and a registered EMT, was one of the PIO volunteers awaiting deployment. He was with the Metro New York 2 Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT).

Brennan says that FEMA would eventually focus on the long-term messaging once everyone was evacuated.

"Until they start to get some supplies in the area, there's not much you can do," Brennan says. "You can tell people to stay hydrated, but how does that matter if there's no potable water?"

But Brennan conceded that the press would not soon ignore the political implications of the disaster response.

"The was the first big test for the new Homeland Security Department, and the [disaster] response... and how prepared you were...is always measured politically," Brennan says.

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