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Ice knocked out communications

FRANKFORT — This winter's ice storm — the most catastrophic natural disaster to hit Kentucky since the New Madrid earthquake of 1811 — underscored the need for at least one satellite telephone in every county, Adjutant General Edward W. Tonini said Monday.

"In much of the state we lost the means to communicate," Tonini told members of a House legislative committee in a presentation about the state's response to the January storm, which knocked out power to more than 770,000 customers and is blamed for at least 36 deaths.

Tonini said the hardest-hit areas of Western Kentucky lost all means of communications.

"In many cases, the total extent of our emergency eyes and ears were a couple of satellite radios and a few ham radio operators operating on batteries," he said.

The state's initial response was "measured and somewhat tempered" because of the limited communication, said the general.

The poor communication also delayed the notification of some National Guard members, whom Gov. Steve Beshear activated, Tonini said.

Beshear initially sent 1,600 members of the Guard's rapid-response force to the hardest-hit areas. In all, 4,600 Guard members were mobilized in the largest call-up of its forces in Kentucky's history.

Tonini said after Monday's meeting of the House Seniors, Military Affairs and Public Safety Committee that he did not know whether satellite telephones in every county would have saved lives during the storm.

"But that would be a prudent thing," he said. "It would have given us better information sooner ... and maybe we could have given people more relief more expeditiously."

Tonini didn't readily know how many Kentucky counties have satellite phones or how much they would cost. He said the state should pick up the bill.

Satellite phones are a type of mobile phone that connect to orbiting satellites instead of land-based cell phone towers. Their coverage can include the entire Earth or a specific region.

Old handsets can cost about $200, but some of the newest cost several thousand dollars.

Warm weather after the storm helped communication tremendously, Tonini said. "If zero-degree temperature had persisted for another week, we really could have been in trouble."

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