Hurricane Andrew

Likely casualty of any Andrew-like hurricane: cellphones

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 wouldn’t work,” said Norcross, now a hurricane specialist for the Weather Channel. “It’s 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 today’s 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 couldn’t 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.

It’s 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, that’s 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 couldn’t happen again, consider this: Just how useful is an iPhone’s GPS if there’s 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.

“It’s what we stay awake nights trying to make sure we’re ready for,” said Chuck Hamby, a Florida-based spokesman for Verizon Wireless. “How people communicate has changed, and it’s continuing to change. We want to make sure we’re there for our customers.”

When a natural disaster like Katrina (or, on a much smaller scale, last year’s earthquake in Washington, D.C.) occurs, there are at least two destructive dynamics at play. The first, naturally, is equipment damage caused by wind, flooding and debris.

But the other reason a call might not go through or Twitter won’t load can be just as critical: Almost everyone is trying to use the network at the same time. The existing infrastructure can’t handle that much volume all at once.

However, text messages use far less bandwidth — the transmission capacity of an electronic device — and can often get through when calls cannot. That was the case in Haiti after its catastrophic 2010 earthquake, allowing volunteers to communicate, and ultimately saving lives.

As for widespread commercial power loss — which was a bigger problem during Katrina than actual equipment failure — Hamby said Verizon has made improvements in recent years.

Now, most of the provider’s cell sites come with generators and backup batteries that will allow the towers to remain operational without commercial electricity for up to 10 days.

(Of course, that’s irrelevant to the customers whose phones go dead after the first day because they have nowhere to charge them.)

Similar safeguards are in place at AT&T, which says it has invested $600 million in its network disaster recovery program. When the next big storm hits, the company will deploy emergency communications vehicles to provide broadband service, Wi-Fi and voice connectivity for the repair teams as soon as it’s safe to drive.

Furthermore, AT&T has a fleet of mobile towers it will send to places where the network has been damaged, restoring service faster than ever.

“We’re going to come in as quickly as possible, but it could be a day or a couple of days, depending on the severity of the damage,” said Kelly Morrison, a senior network specialist for AT&T. “Having a diverse set of communications devices is critical. If I lived in Florida, I’d own a battery-powered radio and an inventory of batteries to help me cope as well as I could.”

Problem is, there are many who don’t heed Morrison’s advice. Because of South Florida’s transient nature, tens of thousands of people have moved here since the region’s last major storm, Hurricane Wilma, struck late in the 2005 season.

That’s why Miami-Dade’s Office of Emergency Management communicates on several platforms — including television, radio, text message and Internet. Jonathan Lord, OEM’s deputy director, also urges residents to buy a National Weather Service radio, but realizes not everyone will.

“We’re not going to focus on just one tool,” Lord said.