In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, members of the Senate Commerce Committee expressed concern about power, security, spectrum availability and network reliability during a hearing today on “Communications in a Disaster.”

Communications failures along the Gulf Coast regions of Louisiana and Mississippi during and after the massive storm hit earlier this month have been well chronicled. While winds and debris knocked some wireless towers out of commission, many more were rendered useless when floodwaters damaged wireline backhaul routes and created power outages, industry officials said in their testimony.

“Typically, although a hurricane causes damage, the water recedes; in New Orleans, the water stayed,” FCC Kevin Martin said. “New Orleans presented unbelievable problems, because restoration crews couldn’t access the infrastructure [to repair or refuel it].”

Complicating matters further was the inability for service providers to access their facilities in a timely matter to restore service. Federal officials at the scene refused to let communications technicians in the city to fix infrastructure during the first two days after Katrina passed. In addition, when crews were given access, many of them had to be escorted by security that was not always available when the crews were ready to work.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the committee, said he believes restoration crews should be credentialed in advance to enable quick access to key infrastructure after disasters and that measures should be taken to ensure that personnel do not have “fear for their lives” as they try to fix disabled equipment.

More important, Stevens said communications networks’ “over-reliance” on commercial power is “unacceptable.”

Sen. Daniel Inouye (R-Hawaii) also expressed concern that the communications infrastructure is so reliant on power.

“You can have all the equipment in the world, but if you don’t have power, you’re out of business,” he said.

Martin said 38 public-safety answering points (PSAPs) were out of service during Katrina’s aftermath, with three Louisiana PSAPs still out of commission. Calls made to these PSAPs were simply lost, and Martin said systems need to be established to reroute those calls to the nearest available PSAP.

“Going forward, we need to establish a process to work with states and municipalities to improve the redundancy of critical communications links that serve PSAPs,” Martin said.

Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) echoed this sentiment and reiterated a call for funding to pay for PSAP upgrades included in legislation passed late last year.

Like other members of the panel, Burns applauded the restoration efforts made by communications companies, noting that it was “more than federal government could have done.”

The hearing was particularly relevant as Hurricane Rita moves toward the south Texas coast, where landfall is expected this weekend. When asked if they were prepared for another hurricane, industry officials testified that they had disaster plans in place and that it was unlikely that this hurricane would result in the kind of flooding that complicated Katrina restoration efforts.