Cell phones have improved since Hurricane Katrina. Is it enough?

 Nancy Madden of Gulfport stands on top of her car Sept. 2, 2005, to get a better cell signal as she and her mother, Nora Clay, try to reach family members and insurance companies following Hurricane Katrina.
JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALD/FILE Nancy Madden of Gulfport stands on top of her car Sept. 2, 2005, to get a better cell signal as she and her mother, Nora Clay, try to reach family members and insurance companies following Hurricane Katrina. SUN HERALD

When Hurricane Katrina hit South Mississippi in 2005, those who had cell phones used them to talk and text -- when they could get reception, which was iffy at best for awhile after the devastating storm.

Now, 11 years later, residents will hear emergency alerts on their smartphones as a storm approaches, check the radar, download evacuation maps and share pictures and video as they prepare for the storm.

The question is, will South Mississippi be able to communicate locally and with the outside world after the storm passes?

"We are more prepared now for the next storm," said Dave Miller, spokesman for C Spire Wireless. Cell-phone providers say they learned from Katrina and invested millions in infrastructure to keep the phones ringing and get service back up more quickly in the hardest-hit areas.

What's at stake

Customers rely on their cell phones so much more today than they did in 2005. They pay their bills online. They read the news and control security at their homes and offices with their smartphones and tablets. They post to social media and search the internet for any information they need.

There was no annual data usage in 2005, according to CTIA -- The Wireless Association. If a storm were to hit in 2016, cell users could search online for first-aid tips or find food-distribution areas --if the networks are still operating. Even if the power is out, today's cell phones have longer battery life and can be recharged with a car battery or a smart stick.

Text messages, which were the best way to communicate immediately after Katrina, would still be the preferred method in 2016 to keep lines free for emergency calls. But there would be a lot more traffic. Texts increased from 10 billion in 2005 to 157 billion in 2015. Wireless-subscriber connections soared from 208 million in 2005 to 378 million by the end of last year.

"It's become a smartphone world," Miller said.

What's been done

When cell use increases before and after a storm, a $6 million regional super switch C Spire built in Hattiesburg and a $2 million switching center in Semmes, Ala., are designed to handle higher call and text volumes, Miller said. The company erected new cell towers and installed microwave services and permanent backup generators to supply power if commercial electricity is lost.

"All of our towers have backup power," he said.

AT&T invested more than $875 million in its Mississippi wireless and wired networks from 2013 to 2015 to upgrade reliability, coverage, speed and overall performance for residents, businesses and first responders.

"We stand committed to keeping our customers connected during the upcoming hurricane season -- before, during and after storms," spokesman Lance Skelly said.

The company's $600 million Network Disaster Recovery team has 300 technology and equipment trailers ready to deploy where needed.

Before a storm, AT&T will boost its wireless network for increased call volume; stage batteries and portable generators at cell sites; and switch to natural gas to power some of its permanent generators.

After a storm, the company will move in emergency-communications vehicles and set up a self-sufficient base camp to begin to restore and maintain service.

"The NDR team makes sure the right people and tools are in place and ready near the storm-impact area," Skelly said.

Verizon has built towers along South Mississippi and equipped them with on-site generators, the company said in a press release, and will deploy its fleet of Cells on Wheels, Cells on Light Trucks and generators on trailers to quickly restore damaged sites.

Technology isn't everything

"During the days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, we faced many challenges in restoring service," C Spire's Miller said, "including limited access to power and generator fuel, a severely damaged landline infrastructure, security concerns for our employees and limited use of priority communications services for first responders."

The cellular companies and local emergency-management officials say they have worked through the concerns raised by Katrina, but nobody knows what the next storm will bring.

Smartphones have much better performance than the cell phones used after Katrina, and forecasting the intensity and path of a storm has improved over the last decade, Miller said. Residents will have access to that information, but still need to know when to evacuate.

"It's still going to require people to have a plan," he said.

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