There are a lot of things I don’t understand about the government’s response to Katrina, and this story epitomizes it: a bunch of volunteer techies wanted to install and run a low-power radio station in the Astrodome, which seems like it could do a lot of good, yet they’ve been thwarted at every turn. After obtaining an FCC license, the group was asked to first procure 10,000 battery-powered radios (with batteries), because a local official was worried about “people fighting over the radios.” Moreover, they had to promise not to play any rap music, because there were concerns it would incite some of the evacuees to violence. Then they were denied because the Astrodome could not provide the power (which sounds specious). So they offered to run their equipment off batteries. Finally, the local official said she failed to see the utility of a radio system, instead preferring to communicate via the loudspeaker system (that must be pleasant) and newsletters. After that they gave up. But they learned a lesson that I’ve found works well in places where you’re trying to get something done: it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission:
“Last week you could just go right inside (the Astrodome),” said one volunteer who declined to be named. “We should have just set up then and gotten permission later.”
For a more positive-ending story about some geeks who were able to get a wireless network installed and running and have put some striken people back in touch with each other, have a read of this Washington Post article.