flooding from Hurricane Harvey (Defense Department)

Unwanted drones, cellular outages complicate Harvey response

Disaster recovery efforts are getting underway for the Texas coastal communities reeling from Hurricane Harvey.  In addition to the massive response by local responders, federal agencies are working to ensure the airspace is safe and telecommunications outages can be quickly repaired.

As the storm pushed inland, both the Federal Aviation Administration and Texas state officials tweeted that unauthorized drones  were endangering efforts of airborne rescue teams.

Near the hard-hit area of Corpus Christ some people were apparently using commercial drones to get a bird’s eye view of the widespread damage.

According to the Texas Military Department, the small privately owned aircraft are threatening air rescue operations. The department tweeted out an alert Aug. 26 that its personnel in the area were "seeing civilian drones that pose EXTREME risks to our rescue pilots and crews in high need areas."

The department oversees the Texas Army National Guard, the Texas Air National Guard and the Texas State Guard.

The FAA had placed temporary flight restrictions in the area around Corpus Christi from Aug. 23 through Sept. 2. The Texas Military Department posted a map of the no-fly zones on its website and Twitter in hopes of keeping the unauthorized drone traffic down.

The drones were such a problem that the Federal Aviation Administration also tweeted a similar warning the same day that operators flying unauthorized drones in the disaster area would be subject to fines.

The FAA warned unauthorized operators they could face “significant fines” if they get in the way of emergency operations. It also said flying unauthorized drones in a disaster area could violate federal, state and local law, even if no official flight restrictions were in place.

"Allow first responders to save lives and property without interference," it said.

Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission has been tracking another critical resource during the storm -- the status of commercial telecommunications networks. The agency's Disaster Information Reporting System takes in outage data from telecommunications carriers during catastrophic events.

The Aug. 27 DIRS report said the number of outages for public safety answering points (PSAP) that handle 911 calls was climbing in the area, from nine on Aug. 26 to 17 on Aug. 27.

The DIRS report said carriers serving areas that took a direct hit from the storm -- Aransas, Calhoun, Refugio and San Patricio -- reported more than 50 percent of their cell sites down, with as much as 95 percent out in Aransas County, the bull's-eye of the storm’s landfall.

According to the report, 4.1 percent of the cell sites are down in the overall affected area of 55 counties stretching along the Gulf Coast from the eastern most tip of Louisiana to the southernmost tip of Texas .

This article was first posted to FCW, a sibling site to GCN.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at mrockwell@fcw.com or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

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