The damage done by Hurricane Harvey is, as the National Weather Service, tweeted ominously over the weekend, “unknown & beyond anything experienced.” Rain continues to fall over the water-soaked region of Southeast Texas where the category 4 hurricane made landfall Friday night. It’s a living nightmare already drawing comparisons to Hurricane Katrina.
One comparison offers a glimmer of hope amid the devastation: Communications networks have held much better. While connectivity was almost completely lost in Rockport, Texas, which was hit hardest by the storm, the Federal Communications Commission says just 4 percent of the 7,804 cell sites in Harvey’s path were wiped out, affecting 148,565 people. By contrast, more than 1,000 cell sites were knocked out during Katrina, preventing millions of calls from going through, according to a post-Katrina FCC report.
Now, Texas’s 9-1-1 system has been overloaded with calls, but “those calls are going through,” says Adm. Jamie Barnett, former chief of public safety and homeland security at the FCC. “By and large we’re hearing that the cellular networks stood up. That means there’s been some learning.”
That may come as cold comfort to the families fleeing ruined homes in boats and on floating air mattresses, but it is crucial nonetheless. As central as connectivity has become to our everyday lives, in times of disaster it is a matter of life and death. That’s particularly true of cellular service, as disaster victims use smartphones to send SMS, Twitter, and Facebook notifications about their needs and their whereabouts.
“Communications ranks up there with having fuel in the police cars,” says Trey Forgety
director of government affairs at the National Emergency Number Association, 9-1-1’s official professional organization.
Disaster preparedness has become a critical component of cellular networks. Companies such as Verizon and AT&T deploy mobile cell sites on light trucks and are now experimenting with drone technology to both survey damage to their infrastructure and beam LTE service to areas that remain under flood waters. In this case, Hurricane Harvey was slow-moving enough that companies like Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T had time to pre-arrange fuel delivery for their cell sites’ backup generators and ready their mobile cell units to be deployed into hard-hit areas. AT&T has deployed seven portable cell sites, two charging stations, and an emergency communications vehicle to the affected areas.
Texas’s 9-1-1 system has also progressed since the days of Katrina, Forgety says. Shortly after that hurricane, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, began assembling lists of qualified telecommunications workers who can fill in for 9-1-1 dispatchers. “When all the people who work in your call center have houses that are flooded, they’re in trouble themselves,” says Forgety. “These are trained go-teams of people that can go into the affected area and start handling calls for the folks who normally would do that.”
These systems are not perfect, of course. During the height of Hurricane Harvey, some callers could not reach 9-1-1, either because of endless hold times or busy signals. That’s partly due to the fact that the United States has a balkanized emergency response system, based on legacy wired phone networks that can only direct calls from one physical location to a single call center. To offload excess call capacity to another call center—as is common practice in parts of Europe—would require rewiring the system, and lots of money. Even if there were a way to handle the immense call volume, there would still be a shortage of first responders.
“I don’t think you’re ever going to be able to respond to really millions of people who are in distress or danger right at the same minute,” says Barnett.
For all of their investments in hardening their cellular networks, mobile carriers have opposed efforts to modernize other parts of the emergency-response system. As Recode noted, AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile have lobbied against efforts by the FCC to change text-based emergency alert systems, so they could provide more useful information to more targeted segments of the population.
Other promising innovations also face roadblocks. Mesh networks, for example, are decentralized networks that enable one device to communicate with another nearby device, which communicates to a third device, creating a daisy chain of connectivity that, in theory, could provide an entire region or neighborhood with cell signal. Do-gooder hackers set up such mesh networks in places like Red Hook, Brooklyn after Hurricane Sandy. But in order for mesh networks to functions as widespread substitutes for failed cellular infrastructure, smartphone manufacturers would need to embed that capability into their phones, which they have, so far, been unwilling to do.
“They see it as a feature that’d only be used once in awhile and is not a big money maker,” says Jeff Robble, a senior software systems engineer at Mitre, a research and development non-profit, which designed its own mesh network called SPAN in 2011. That network required users to purchase a specific Android device and download a new operating system—not exactly the kind of easy-to-use tool that an elderly person trapped in a Houston home would turn to for help.
The pace of progress has not been quick enough to help all of the people of Southeast Texas now. But once the flood waters recede, there will no doubt be lots to learn from Hurricane Harvey—like Katrina before it—that could help even more people in the future.