Twenty-four years ago, TV weatherman Bryan Norcross was the voice of reason and calm as Hurricane Andrew lashed South Florida. As frightened residents huddled in hallways and crouched in closets around transistor radios and little battery-powered TVs, he told them what they should be doing to weather the storm.
As a result of that devastating hurricane, local building codes were strengthened and community emergency preparedness plans overhauled. Forecasting also has improved in the intervening years. But there’s one area that may be more vulnerable than it was when Andrew came ashore on Aug. 24, 1992: the communications system.
There have been huge technological advances in personal communications in the past two decades. There are also apps with weather alerts and safety tips, and agencies from the National Hurricane Center to FEMA crank out information on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.
But when it comes to natural disasters, some analysts say old-school technology — landlines and battery-powered radios — may be best.
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“I think we’re more vulnerable [in terms of communications] than we were 24 years ago,” said Norcross, who anchored the WTVJ newscast for 23 hours straight during Andrew and is now a hurricane specialist for The Weather Channel. “I remember after Andrew there were a lot of people with wrecked homes but the phone line was still working in the kitchen.”
During Andrew, Norcross’ reports were simulcast on radio. Now, for many people, the battery-powered transistor radio is little more than a nostalgic relic. Television stations also have switched from analog to digital systems and battery-powered digital TVs aren’t as readily available as the small analog models were.
Society has become dependent on devices from cellphones to tablets and laptops that need a charge to keep working — and electrical grids are often the first to go during major storms. That impact is compounded by the fact that so many people have cut the cord and use only cellphones in their homes rather than landlines, which are usually more reliable during storms.
A Florida Public Service Commission report from December 2015 said Florida residents and businesses had 3.3 million traditional phone lines last year, down from 3.8 million the previous year and 6.1 million in 2011. The most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Health Interview Survey found that 47 percent of U.S. households are now cellphone only, compared with 20 percent in 2009 and just 3 percent in 2003.
There hasn’t been a major hurricane in the United States since 2005 — the year of hurricanes Katrina and Wilma — although there have been storms that caused extensive flooding. As a result, the cellphone network hasn’t really been put to a test during the era of mobile phone proliferation. “It is a large, unexplored area,” said Norcross.
But even as a tropical wave brewed in the Atlantic this week, cellphones providers were holding discussions and mobilizing emergency response teams in case it developed into something more serious.
They generally start moving portable generators into strategic areas well in advance of a storm. In locations where cellphone facilities are damaged or down, they bring in mobile cellphone sites called COWs (Cells on wheels) and other equipment.
“Our preparations for these types of natural disasters are ongoing — well in advance of a storm. In the state of Florida we’ve invested millions in this,” said Roni Singleton, a spokeswoman for Sprint. Its cellphone towers, for example, are designed to withstand winds of 120-150 mph.
“First and foremost we want people to be able to stay connected,” she said.
Verizon’s Florida switching centers are built to handle Category 5 storms and can also serve as emergency operations centers for Verizon workers and first responders. They have hardened shells, on-site power generation and other back-up systems. The company has back-up generators at more than 81 percent of its Florida cell sites and has pre-arranged fuel deliveries to keep them supplied in emergencies.
Stardard pre-storm preparation by AT&T includes boosting its wireless network to handle increased call volume and testing high-capacity backup batteries at cell sites. AT&T says it has invested more than $600 million in its Network Disaster Recovery program and has more than 300 technology and equipment trailers that it can quickly deploy.
But Coral Gables-based IT consultant Enrique Lopez says the old-school copper wire landline connection is still the most reliable during a hurricane because it doesn’t need electricity to keep functioning, and isn’t dependent on a wireless provider’s cellphone tower holding up to an onslaught.
“I think you’ll find that plain old telephone service with central offices is your best shot,” he said. “It’s kind of like your good old 1956 Chevy. It doesn’t have a leather interior and there’s no A.C., but it will get you there.”
However, those who use wireless phone sets on their landlines will still have to keep them charged or they won’t work. Those with VOIP service on their landlines won’t be immune either.
“If you’re using VOIP service, it’s not a telephone line. It’s Internet based. You still have to have a modem working and you have to have power,” said Jeff Kagan, an Atlanta-based telecom industry analyst. Landlines, he pointed out, are also vulnerable to flooding.
“There’s no such thing as a bullet-proof network, but providers learn with each hurricane season and continue to strengthen their systems,” Kagan said. “Cellphone networks are much more robust than they were five or 10 years ago.”
But what happens when hundreds of thousands of cellphone users all try to use their phones during or after a disaster? With an increased number of callers all trying to connect at the same time, networks can become overloaded.
“Basically you’ll see a lot of people unable to connect,” Lopez said, “I do think vulnerability is higher today, especially during an emergency.”
AT&T acknowledges that the increased calling volume can create network congestion, resulting in “fast-busy” signals on wireless phones or a slow dial tone on landline phones. When that happens, AT&T advises customers to hang up, wait several seconds for the original call data to clear the network and then try again.
There are other things people can do to mitigate communications vulnerabilities during a storm.
Perhaps the best advice as a hurricane approaches is to charge, charge, charge.
“One of the things that people have to remember as part of their hurricane preparedness kit — just like stockpiling water — is you need to have a battery-powered charger for. your cellphone,” said Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist and spokesman for the National Hurricane Center.
“Your cellphone is not just for calls these days. It is is your lifeline, your Internet, your texting, your Tweeting,” he said. “You must have a charge. People still should have a battery-powered radio. We’re so dependent on our cellphones that we forget there are other alternatives.”
Along with more traditional hurricane supplies, FEMA lists a battery-powered or hand-crank radio and a NOAA Weather Radio with tone alert and extra batteries for both on its emergency supply list.
The good news is there are more ways to charge devices than ever — from battery-powered power banks or battery packs to small and inexpensive cellphone charger sticks. But you’ll want to make sure their batteries are charged up in advance of a storm. A generator, of course, is a more expensive solution to power outages.
Norcross said he relied on two battery packs during Hurricane Wilma in 2005. During the day, he charged them up at his office, which had electricity, and then used it to power his cellphones, a fan and lights during the evening. Battery packs are readily available and can be purchased for as little as $20 to $25.
If all else fails, you can plug your cellphone into your car charger. But some chargers won’t work unless the engine is running, so that’s one more reason to make sure your gas tank is topped off before a storm. Car inverters that generate power from a vehicle’s battery offer a more substantial jolt of juice.
There are also solar-powered chargers on the market and some crank radios have a port where a cellphone can be plugged in. If Sprint customers find themselves with a dead phone after a storm, they can go to a Sprint store and get a free charge, said Singleton.
“If it’s not an emergency, turn off your phone and conserve your batteries,” she said. “During any kind of emergency, we advise customers to minimize the amount of time they spend on their cellphones so there’s not a lot of congestion.”
“What works really well even if you can’t make calls on your cellphone is texting because it uses so little bandwidth,” said Feltgen.
Another advance since 1992 is that many devices and LED lights use very little power, said Norcross, meaning a little charge can go a long way.
Perhaps the most old-fashioned communications tip of all is get to know your neighbors. They may have a different wireless provider that works better in your area than yours or be able to help you out in other ways.
“Talk to them,” said the Hurricane Center’s Feltgen. “When I was growing up in South Florida, we knew everyone. But that was before everyone had AC. Now people have moved from their front porches to inside.”
Tips to keep connected during a storm
▪ Keep mobile phone batteries charged and have multiple charging devices on-hand. Remember to keep them charged up too.
▪ Store phones, tablets, batteries and other equipment in dry, accessible locations. A simple solution is putting them and accessories in zip-lock bags.
▪ Program a list of emergency numbers, including that of your insurance company, into your phone before a storm hits. Keep a paper copy as well in case your phone dies.
▪ Consider texting if you are having trouble getting calls through. During an emergency, there is often network congestion.
▪ Stay off the phone if your calls aren’t essential. It conserves battery life and helps emergency calls get through.
▪ Set up a family communications plan. You might want to designate someone out of the area as a central contact who provides updates to friends and family and helps get family members who might get separated back in touch.
▪ Consider purchasing an emergency phone. The SpareOne Emergency Phone, for example, has a flashlight, glow-in-the-dark keypad, a locate and alert service, a panic siren and an SOS signal.
▪ After a storm, a camera phone can be useful to send photos and videos of damage to your insurance company.
▪ Load free weather, news and safety apps before a storm. Among them are the American Red Cross’ Hurricane, The Weather Channel’s Weather Universal Forecast, Weather Underground and NOAA Now.
▪ Have extra batteries and battery chargers at hand
▪ Back up important information and contacts on the Cloud in case your phone or tablet is lost or damaged.
Sources: AT&T, Verizon, Sprint