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Areas of the Deep South have been hit so hard by Hurricane Katrina that BellSouth doesn't even know how many phone lines were downed by the storm. Repair technicians and engineers can't get to some of the worst areas to assess the damage.
Until residents return and report outages more extensively, BellSouth communication director Nadine Randall says, any estimates are tentative, preliminary and too low. Five million remain without power. But this afternoon, the company reported that more than 196,000 customers were without phone lines in the five southern states most heavily affected by Katrina. Randall expects these numbers to grow substantially in the coming hours and days and can't estimate how long it will take to restore access to all residents. However, BellSouth has dealt with 23 hurricanes in the last 10 years and has been preparing specifically for Katrina for more than a week. "We take our mission really seriously," said CIO Fran Dramis. "We run 20 percent of the nation's critical network, so we worry about this every day."
The company has 1,000 generators on stand-by so areas with no power might still have phone access. Employees sandbagged and sealed facilities to shield them from the harsh effects of wind and water. And a monitoring team watched Katrina with GIS tracking software, overlaying her path on top of maps of BellSouth's critical infrastructure to analyze who and where would be hardest hit.
The company has also discussed plans to quickly set up tent cities in New Orleans and southern Mississippi, as it did elsewhere after last year's hurricanes. These will provide food, sleeping space and assistance to BellSouth employees unable to return to their homes. The company has put hurricane tips on its website and has toll-free lines for employees to call for information. The next stage for BellSouth will be to send technicians in to do in-depth surveys. Several thousand BellSouth technicians will be sent in to do repairs even as the surveys continue. Service has been restored to about 90 percent of those who lost it last week when Katrina first came ashore in south Florida. "We will engage any and all resources necessary to restore service to our customers," Randall said. "It's a big storm, but we have the resources, the staff and the expertise to manage it."