When a Hurricane Approaches South Florida, Will Technology Stand Up to the Storm?

Jun 14 2011

Next time a hurricane heads toward South Florida, many of us will turn to smartphones and wireless tablets for information and advice. But will wireless carriers be able to handle the load?

By Bridget Carey

Next time a hurricane hits, families will turn to their smartphones to stay in touch, track the storm and find the shortest gasoline lines.

To handle the load, wireless carriers are turning to time-tested disaster plans – but on an exponential scale. The gates will be released on a barnyard-dubbed herd of backup support: cells on wheels (COWS), cells on light trucks (COLTS) and generators on trailers (GOaTS). 

But will it be enough to handle some 600,000 South Florida households without land lines, plus the seemingly endless hunger to Tweet, Facebook and upload videos of broken trees, gasoline lines and blocked roadways?

No one will know for sure until a storm hits. But the violent storms that tore through the country earlier this year provided a look at the demands of a data-dependent age, and the challenges required to meet them. 

In tornado-ravaged Joplin, Mo., Facebook became a critical channel to finding lost family and asking for help, said Joplin resident Don Lawellin, 54, who used mobile technology to keep in touch.

With cable Internet connections down for several days, about two-thirds of the town counted on wireless phones for news. Organizations took to Twitter to spread the word of where to find supplies and emergency stations -- even for re-charging phones. 

And a cellphone network is the only reason Lawellin's mother, Edith, is alive today. A service from Alarm.com used wireless networks to send a tornado alert warning to her home security system, waking her up. About a minute later, the only thing left in the duplex was the closet Edith hid in.

The heavy use put a toll on wireless services, which were spotty -- but generally worked, though not necessarily on the first few tries. 

Here, in hurricane-savvy South Florida, demand could be even greater as consumers turn to newly developed apps for emergency situations.

Every South Florida media outlet, including The Miami Herald, offers a smartphone app or smartphone-friendly website for watching video. Others apps track a hurricane and supply weather reports, including one from The Weather Channel.

Others apps -- such as Life360 Family Tracker iPhone -- were put to use in the aftermath of the tornados. Using a phone's GPS location, users sent messages to family members that they needed help; in Tuscaloosa, Ala., 192 families used it to say they were safe.  

Even the Federal Communications Commission is leaning on wireless systems with tests of a new emergency alert system that would send out messages to cellphones, based on the device's location.

To prepare for the load, major wireless carriers say they have tested equipment and run simulations in South Florida. Network backup facilities have been upgraded to withstand heavy winds; for instance, Verizon now has a massive bunker-like facility in West Broward that can run on generators and batteries.  

AT&T has added a 3G-like speed for its temporary satellite backup connection.

"The only reason we've done that is [to provide] a robust data ability during a disaster," said Mark Francis, AT&T's vice president of global network operations planning.

Even in a data-demanding culture, though, voice calls are the greatest activity on a cellular network, carriers say. In the first moments of a disaster, "it's still heavy, heavy calling," said Francis.

Still, carriers acknowledge that the back-ups won't be as robust as a fully operational network.

"You can do all the preparation you want," said Francis, "and Mother Nature is going to roll in and say ‘Nice try.' " 

Their advice for using a storm-strained network: Post something short on Facebook or Twitter, send a text and then get off the phone.