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AT&T Leaves New Orleans Unable to Contact 911 During Hurricane Ida

The company will soon control a giant chunk of the state's 911 call-center infrastructure.

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Image for article titled AT&T Leaves New Orleans Unable to Contact 911 During Hurricane Ida
Photo: Brandon Bell (Getty Images)

Amid the human carnage that was wrought by Hurricane Ida this past weekend, the brutal rain and wind conditions that slammed the Louisiana coasts have left some awful infrastructural damage in their wake. Power grids were shattered. Buildings collapsed. And in the middle of it all, countless 911 calls failed to go through across the state. According to a new Washington Post report, a lot of the blame for the 911 outages falls onto AT&T, who’s been deeply ingrained in Louisiana’s 911 call centers for years.

Earlier this summer, the Orleans Parish Communication District (OPCD)—the administrative office overseeing 911 dispatches across New Orleanssigned a contract with AT&T to migrate the city’s 911 call centers to an all-in-one, cloud-based platform called “ESInet.” Among other things, ESInet boasts features like “maximum dependability,” and a “highly secure network resistant to penetration, abuse or misuse.”

Then Ida hit, and hit while the new cloud system was still months away from being rolled out in full. The technology that they had on the ground right now, meanwhile, couldn’t keep up with the brutal conditions Ida had wrought. Power outages led to the 911 systems crashing for 13 hours straight on Monday, leaving state officials to tell citizens that they might be better off approaching fire stations or flagging police officers directly, instead of calling 911.

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The rest of AT&T’s network didn’t fare any better. Across Facebook and Twitter, desperate residents used family and friends to try to reach AT&T and blasted the company after being unable to reach their customers during these catastrophic conditions.

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AT&T, for its part, has been pushing to restore its cell service across the region. Early Monday, the company said that 60% of its wireless network was fully operational—and when contacted by Gizmodo, a spokesperson pointed to its latest blog post noting that its wireless network in Louisiana was operating at 85% of its normal capacity. They added that “the numbers have been improving,” and that AT&T plans “an additional update later today.”

Other telco operators are reporting similar numbers in Ida’s wake. On Monday, T-Mobile publicly stated that it reached 70% of functionality across all of Louisiana. Verizon’s most recent numbers put it at 85% functionality, with the company noting that “hard hit areas that were experiencing loss of service yesterday are now fully or partially restored.”

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Of course, it’s Louisiana isn’t a stranger to dealing with downed power lines and 911-center outages in the wake of a massive natural disaster. In the wake of hurricane Katrina back in 2004, the Federal Communications Commission actually put out a massive tome detailing what the agency had “learned” in the aftermath of the storm that had left so many power grids and phone lines downed. Per the FCC’s report, Katrina knocked out close to 40 911 call-centers across Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama., along with over 1,000 cellphone sites. An estimated 20 million phone calls didn’t go through. We’re still trying to piece together the tens of billions of dollars in damage that Ida left in its wake, but hopefully, we’re going to see AT&T face the FCC’s line of fire sometime soon.

Correction 5:13 PM ET: A previous version of this story stated that AT&T’s current coverage at 70% capacity, not the 85% as the company’s blog suggests. We regret the error.