Fighting to Help Katrina Victims — wireless

It has been the sort of comedy of bureaucracy that would make you laugh if it didn’t make you cry. We have real heroes in action on the ground, and volunteers in holding patterns, and a road to Hell paved with real great intentions.

Since Friday, I’ve been trying to help folks who actually want to volunteer and get down to the area impacted by Katrina do so. The multiple layers of government and the need for large organizations to get everything in a database so they can keep track of it all slows things to a crawl. At the same time, it would be a recipe for disaster if thousands of well-meaning but ill trained and ill equiped volunteers randomly streamed into the area trying to do whatever they thought needed getting done, possibly getting in each other’s way or duplicating effort in one place while folks in another get nothing.

After this is over, we will need a serious overhaul of how citizens respond to natural disaster relief. We now have a technology that allows us to move away from slow, centralized command-and-control to a more fluid self-organizing structure. I’ve been talking to some folks and Ive got some ideas if I can get funding. But that is for another time.

First, I want to salute the heroes on the ground providing connectivity and staging areas known to me personally. Mac Dearman and Joe Laura, WISP operators in the devestated zone. Michael Anderson and Claudia Crowley of, who have worked tirelessly to get clearances from the multiple government agencies and NGOs. Marlon Schaeffer and Rick Harnish at WISPA, mobilizing the WISPA troops. Paul Smith at Chicago Neighborhood Technology center and Sascha Meinrath at CUWIN for mobilizing the non-commercial community wireless people. And that’s just the handful I know by name.

You won’t see them on CNN or ABC, where the huge gifts from MS and Cisco and Intel get the headlines (and they deserve their moment in the sun for all their contributions), but these guys and hundreds of others have been working their hearts out to bring needed connectivity to the region.

What is frustrating is how long it has taken for the clearances. The FCC began the process of working with the WISP and CWN folks on Friday. It is now Wed., and we are only just seeing the official mobilizations coming through. Many folks decided not to wait and went on their own to join Mac Dearman and Joe Laura and will fan out from there. At least they will be in region as deployment needs become clear.

Sadly, there is no Hollywood villain here. No dithering bureaucrat who can be satisfactoraly punched in the nose by our “can do” volunteers. What we have is a catastrophic failure of coordination between layers of government and large rescue NGOs. An inexcusable failure in light of the technologies now available for coordination and the warning of 9-11 that we might face city-wide evacuations and mass dislocations.

The WISP/CWN effort to restore and maintain infrastructure will likely go on for weeks, if not longer. It is a supplement to the very difficult job BellSouth, SBC, and the other established infrastructure players will have. But with fiber lines cut, and access to information more critical than ever, we must work harder to take advantage of the new technologies that let us through up ad hoc information networks quickly and of the techno-savvy spirited volunteers willing to give up their own precious time and resources to help others.

Stay tuned . . .


  1. Harold,

    As ever, I’m proud to know you.

    Apologies for not posting a thank-you earlier.


  2. Hang in there, and thanks for keeping the rest of us posted.

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