ORLANDO—The City of New Orleans plans to expand its Wi-Fi network after seeing how well it performed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, said Chris Drake, operations manager for the city’s Emergency Operations Center, speaking today at the 2006 Homeland Security for Networked Industries Conference here.

According to Drake, the Wi-Fi network was the first to go back online after the storm passed. The system’s architecture relies heavily on mesh-networking equipment from Tropos Networks and Motorola’s Canopy system, which is used for backhaul, Drake said.

The system’s durability was impressive, Drake said. “It suffered minor physical damage, which is why we were able to bring the system back so quickly.”

In fact, only a handful of nodes were lost during the storm, and then only when the tower or utility poles to which they were attached toppled. Every node still in place continued to be functional, Drake said.

The system originally was deployed as part of Mayor Ray Nagin’s seven-step plan to fight crime in the city; New Orleans traditionally has a violent crime rank that ranks among the highest in the country. Cameras were deployed to monitor critical infrastructure and to provide evidence that could be used in court. “It’s a witness that can’t be intimidated,” Drake said.

The video surveillance system that rides over the metro-scale Wi-Fi system has yielded impressive results: a 50% reduction in the city’s murder rate and a 30% reduction in vehicle thefts. During his presentation, Drake showed still images from surveillance video that was used in court to convict a car-jacking suspect. In another case, a vandal destroyed a camera by firing Mardi Gras pellets using a paintball gun.

“Unfortunately for him, the system recorded his image before the pellets hit the dome,” Drake said. “That arrest was a big deterrent. Criminals talk to each other, and word gets around pretty quickly.”

Before deploying the system, the city encountered some resistance from the American Civil Liberties Union, which threatened to sue unless some of its concerns were addressed. Though the city didn’t cave in to every demand, it did agree to refrain from recording audio, according to Drake.

“We decided not to be adversarial with them,” he said. “There is a certain expectation that when two people see a police officer approaching that they can whisper to each other without being heard, but the officer knows they’re there. There’s a stigma about eavesdropping, especially when you’re using high-powered recording equipment.”