Famed weatherman Bryan Norcross made his broadcasting bones when Hurricane Andrew was at its worst, remaining on the air for 23 hellish hours to provide storm updates and to counsel scared and stranded South Floridians whose only contact with the outside world was the sound of his steadying voice.
Back then, Norcross station (WTVJ-Channel 4) was one of just a few places to go for real-time hurricane information something unimaginable to the Smartphone Generation, which has an app for most everything, severe weather alerts included.
But with the official start of the hurricane season Friday the 20th since Andrew killed dozens and causes billions in damage across South Florida Norcross voice has turned from soothing to concerned.
His worry: When your primary source of information is your iPhone, what happens when the power is out and there is no place to recharge it? And even if you do have juice, what if the network is down?
If you had a hurricane like Andrew hit now, [the cellular infrastructure] just wouldnt work, said Norcross, now a hurricane specialist for the Weather Channel. Its a monstrous public-safety issue that more and more of the emergency communication industry is electricity- and bandwidth-dependent.
In the days after Andrew struck, people kept informed via transistor radio, landline telephone and the newspaper, whose trucks continued to navigate through the wreckage. The paper served as sort of a printed precursor to todays social media, listing who was unaccounted for, how to locate ice and water, and where the damage was worst. Phone service was spotty, and the power was out for days or weeks, depending on the neighborhood. People from out of town with relatives in South Florida couldnt necessarily reach them to find out if all was well.
Today, transistor radios and landline phones are increasingly rare. And the manner in which most people receive and relay information (mobile gadgets and broadband-based house phones, neither of which work for long without a power supply) is even more susceptible to the elements.
When Hurricane Katrina lashed the Gulf Coast in 2005, the storm knocked out more than three million customer phone lines and over a thousand cellphone sites, according to the Government Accounting Office.
Its strange to think it now, but even that was a different era. The do-it-all iPhone was more than a year from its global unveiling, and most people used their phones for calls and little else.
Now, smartphones are also mini-computers, mobile stereos, date planners and game centers. Many think PDAs personal digital assistants are the only communication devices they need.
In an emergency, thats dangerous, Norcross said. When power and cell service are blacked out and after the most powerful acts of God, they most likely will be so, too, is the flow of crucial information.
When the waters were rising during Katrina, many of those stranded on their roofs communicated with painted signs and waving arms.
For anyone who thinks that couldnt happen again, consider this: Just how useful is an iPhones GPS if theres no service? Among the top priorities for cellular providers after a disruptive event is reestablishing Enhanced 911, which allows dispatchers to locate distressed callers within 300 yards.