Dispatches from the Gulf Coast

How the Army supported Hurricane Katrina relief efforts by establishing and restoring communications systems

With temperatures hovering in the mid-90s and humid air thick with mosquitoes, flies and other airborne nuisances, I spent nearly a week embedded with the Army's 93rd Signal Brigade at Camp Shelby, Miss.

The brigade, based at Fort Gordon, Ga., came to Camp Shelby'headquarters for Joint Task Force Katrina recovery efforts'to set up a voice, video and data infrastructure for the southeastern portion of the state.

What it's like

I slept on a cot in the female barracks, showered in a communal bathroom and ate in the mess hall (when I wasn't chowing down on MREs). In the process, I got a first-hand look at what military life on emergency deployments is like.

I traveled to New Orleans to talk to members of the 56th Signal Battalion, part of the 93rd Signal Brigade. When I got off the six-seater, Gippsland airvan with a 1,600-pound capacity, I immediately smelled a strong, rather sweet scent. I learned from a Navy chief who traveled with me that the scent was most likely decomposed bodies at a distance.

The 56th was deployed to the New Orleans International Airport, supplying communications to the 13th Core Area Support Command out of Fort Hood, Texas, which in turn supports soldiers deployed to the city's downtown area.

Capt. Julian Stamps, 518-Tactical Installation and Network company commander under the 56th battalion, said setting up the computer infrastructure has been relatively easy. After all, that's what military signal divisions do best during emergency deployments'ensure that troops can talk to one another via phone, Internet and videoconference.

But for these soldiers, who sleep on cots inside Concourse A in the terminal and walk about a quarter-mile to take a shower, the most difficult part has been getting food and rest.

Assessing the situation

The day after Hurricane Katrina ravished the Gulf Coast region, members of the 93rd Signal Brigade began driving caravans of communications equipment to Camp Shelby to set up a voice, video and data infrastructure for the southeastern portion of the state.

When about 80 Fort Gordon soldiers arrived at Camp Shelby'headquarters and temporary home to Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, who is spearheading the military's relief efforts for Katrina'they found very limited communications capability.

Roughly 120 brigade soldiers are doing similar work in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, La. The soldiers come from either the brigade's 67th or 56th Signal Battalion.

'We are very similar to Cox Cable and Bell South. We go into an austere environment, and we give you your Internet connection and telephone connection,' explained Col. David Dodd, 93rd Signal Brigade commander. 'We also do that for the Army at wartime.'

The units are providing tactical satellites, data switching/multiplex equipment, and secure and non-secure voice, video and data support to the Army, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Defense Department's joint task force.

The first big test for the brigade came when they had to hook up a videoconference between President Bush in the White House and Gen. Honore just 48 hours after they arrived and set up the tactical equipment.

The videoconference was only supposed to last 17 minutes; but it lasted an hour and 15 minutes. Dodd said it went off without a hitch.

'We didn't want any errors. It was perfect,' he said.

In February, members of the 93rd Signal Brigade, a subordinate unit under the Army's Network Enterprise Technology Command/9th Army Signal Command, came back from a year's deployment in Iraq.

A month later, the communications equipment and tactical trucks arrived on boats, and from March through August, units fixed and maintained the equipment. That same equipment is now being used at Camp Shelby, officials said. 'Everything they're using here is being used in Iraq,' Dodd said, referring to the data packaging units and the satellite terminals.

At the heart of the rescue efforts

Thousands of military personnel are combing the streets of New Orleans to rescue survivors of one of the worst natural disasters Americans have ever witnessed.

About two hours north of the city at the Joint Task Force Katrina Operations Center, 160 active-duty members of the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps use computers and digital displays to give commanders situational awareness of search and rescue efforts.

The operations center in this austere military training camp is at the heart of Hurricane Katrina rescue efforts. Military personnel at laptop computers communicate with rescue workers on the ground in New Orleans via satellite phones or by instant messaging. A digital screen at the front of the room displays a grid of the city, showing various areas broken down by ward and the number of rescue workers in each ward.

The grid runs over the Command and Control Personal Computer (C2PC) software system, a tactical map display designed by the Marine Corps. C2PC is based on Microsoft Windows and allows users to exchange tactical position data with Unix-based systems such as the Global Command and Control System (GCCS) and the Tactical Combat Operations System. The C2PC can also display data from the GCCS Common Operational Picture.

Transportation Department traffic cameras give the staff a glimpse of what is happening at various intersections across New Orleans. Surveillance planes also fly above the city, shooting images and feeding them back to computers in the operations hub.

Army Maj. John Rogers, acting chief of operations, said personnel in the operations center are providing vital situational awareness and management for search and rescue missions. The end result, according to Rogers, is that the center is helping to save lives.

'Our mission is to support FEMA in any way we can do so and to save as many American citizens as we can,' Rogers said. 'We're methodically searching the areas and making sure everyone who wants help gets help.'

Rogers is stationed at Fort Gillem, Ga., but has been at Camp Shelby since early last week.

'We are the Joint Task Force headquarters,' he said. 'That means that within 24 hours, we execute the commanding general's intent by tasking subordinate task forces and units to execute missions within the joint operational area.'

A few days ago, Rogers said, the center received a phone call notifying them that a resident was in trouble and having a difficult time evacuating. He said the center used the C2PC mapping program to learn which unit had responsibility for the area, then sent out an order to quickly route units to the resident's location and effect a safe rescue.

The biggest challenge to communications operations in the Gulf region has been the disparate land mobile tactical radios used by the military services and state and local police and fire departments.

Officials say military services are pros at setting up communications infrastructures in emergency situations for soldiers to communicate with other military personnel.

Bringing it all together

But in homeland defense missions, such as Hurricane Katrina search-and-rescue efforts, the military also needs to communicate with first responders and needs an infrastructure that interfaces with all the agencies, according to Army Col. Larry Klooster, who is functioning as the CIO of the J-6 for Joint Task Force Katrina.

The J-6 division, out of the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs, Colo., is responsible for command, control, communications and computer systems for the Joint Staff.

'When we're moving through the neighborhoods, we need to communicate with police and other authorities. All of us have these different radios,' said Klooster. 'The technology that we have has not been implemented to share information across these boundaries. It's not that we can't communicate, but we could communicate better.'

Klooster said the J-6 is working with officials from the Homeland Security Department, the state of Louisiana and the city of New Orleans to come up with a plan to get all the agencies talking.

One of J-6's plans is to more heavily implement satellite phones. Klooster said the J-6 has purchased some satellite phones, and they have worked well.

Making sure connections are connected

The headquarters for Joint Task Force Katrina's operations is a desolate, 136,000-acre facility that once stretched from Hattiesburg to the banks of the Mississippi River.

When Hurricane Katrina hit, Camp Shelby, because of its central location, became an instant mobilization center for emergency search and rescue efforts in New Orleans. Gen. Russel Honore stays here and makes daily trips across the region to survey the damage and to assist in rescue missions.

A huge support to the emergency efforts is the tactical communications infrastructure, built and maintained by elements of the Army, Defense Information Systems Agency and J-6 out of the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs, Colo. The communications infrastructure is giving ground troops a means to provide status updates via e-mail, cell phones and videoconferences.

Henry Young, a satellite specialist with DISA, said the network connections are coming across the Defense Information Systems Network.

'When they want to access anything, it's via the DISN network. We provide that path,' Young said. 'But they [military personnel] use their own individual pieces of tactical equipment to access it.'

To read more updates from the Gulf Coast, go to www.gcn.com.

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