Face it, Hurricane Katrina was not technology's finest hour. The breakdown in infrastructure and loss of electricity rendered devices and...

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Face it, Hurricane Katrina was not technology’s finest hour. The breakdown in infrastructure and loss of electricity rendered devices and networks useless.

Take cellphones. Why wasn’t the response to Katrina more like the 1992 success story of Hurricane Andrew? Back then, Kirkland-based Cellular One moved with miraculous speed to provide cellphones and wireless communications to the stricken south Florida region. It was a defining moment not only for the cellular industry but for corporate humanitarian aid as well.

To draw some comparisons, I talked with Bob Ratliffe, McCaw Cellular Communications’ “master of disaster” and chief spokesperson for the pioneering carrier then.

Ratliffe recalls asking Cellular One founder Craig McCaw about Andrew shortly before McCaw gave a schools donation at a Tony Bennett waterfront-pier concert. McCaw asked Ratliffe to work with the company’s executive inner circle (who were in attendance) and map a plan for assistance.

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“The next thing I know, Craig says, ‘Pack your bags, you’re going to Florida!’ ” Ratliffe said.

Cellular One moved to distribute 2,000 phones and provide $1 million in free air time, installing diesel-generator-powered portable cells called COWS (for “cells on wheels”). Within hours of the hurricane’s passing, cell service was available in all but the most damaged district.

Ratliffe, who today is a senior vice president in the Seattle offices of Kennedy Associates Real Estate Counsel, an institutional-investment advisory firm, said Cellular One did not have the daunting obstacles of flooding and power outages to surmount.

“We had dry land to wheel the COWS in on,” he said. “And electricity wasn’t hard to come by,” given access to tanker trucks of diesel fuel. “Logistically, we had more factors on our side.”

The headcount factor also helped. Handheld cellphone use was just getting going. Market penetration was tiny compared with today’s cell ubiquity; cell overload wasn’t a factor. Hurricane response was a way to dramatize the safety and security advantages of wireless technology.

But another, more intangible quality drove Cellular One’s efforts back then. It was a trail-blazing company in an entrepreneurial industry. Even without “having a clue what we were doing,” Ratliffe admitted, the attitude was, “Get it done.”

“It was part of the wonderful mentality on which our company was founded,” he related.

In Katrina’s wake, communications companies are responding. Heroic stories are emerging of BellSouth’s efforts to restore infrastructure. T-Mobile is offering free wireless service. Motorola, SBC Communications, Cingular Wireless and others have come through with free phones and service.

Still, the question echoes as it has from the beginning. Why was response so sluggish and after the fact?

Ratliffe points to one contributing factor: “Unfortunately, it’s not an entrepreneurial business anymore.”

There are chains of command to negotiate, budgets to consult, boards to report to, bottom lines to consider. In the process, an American ethic of crisis response can lose its way.

Seattle freelance writer Paul Andrews has written about technology for more than two decades. He can be reached at pandrews@seattletimes.com.