Hurricane Katrina Cuts Phone Service to Millions

Millions of people in storm-ravaged areas of the southern United States were without telephone service on Wednesday, with flooding and power outages from Hurricane Katrina hampering efforts to restore networks.

BellSouth Corp., the dominant local telephone company in much of the area, said service had been cut to about 1.75 million customers along the Gulf Coast, from Louisiana to Florida. Spokesman Joseph Chandler said 750,000 customers were in the hardest-hit areas of Louisiana and Mississippi.

Large wireless carriers also reported problems with their networks.

"A significant amount of the network is out in all of the areas affected, especially in areas such as New Orleans," said Cingular Wireless spokesman Ritch Blasi. "As the waters and floods subside, we'll begin some of the restoration efforts."

With power still out in many parts of Louisiana and Mississippi, the switches and infrastructure that runs the telecommunications networks were operating on backup power, either batteries or generators.

Chandler said BellSouth was beginning to assess the damage to its network in Alabama and Mississippi, but it might be some time before it was able to reach its equipment in New Orleans. About 80 percent of the city is under water.

Cellular companies said text messages and e-mails were more likely to reach people on cellular phones than voice calls. Such messages are sent as small bursts of data and can find a path to the network more easily than a voice call, which requires a steady connection.

Some cell phone users were also able to place calls, but not receive them, depending on which cellular towers were working.

Verizon Wireless spokeswoman Sheryl Sellaway said the company's network was starting to improve from Tuesday. Cingular, the wireless venture of SBC Communications Inc. and BellSouth, and Verizon Wireless, a venture of Verizon Communications and Vodafone Group Plc, had used stores in some areas to offer free calling and phone recharging.

Sellaway said Verizon was also readying portable cellular towers to be deployed in areas where the company had lost equipment or could not reach it.

With hit-or-miss telephone service, many people turned to the Internet to attempt contact relatives or friends. Several Internet sites set up boards for people to post messages to reach relatives or swap news about particular neighborhoods.

Copyright 2005 Reuters Limited.

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