JACKSON, Miss. - Bay St. Louis Police Chief Frank McNeil faced the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina with no communications. All along Mississippi's tattered coast, residents scrambled to find ways to tell loved ones they had survived.
It is a scene that major wireless companies hope to prevent this hurricane season by investing millions to beef up towers, educate customers and build mobile command centers.
"I think the message is that there's always something to learn," said Patrick Kimball, a spokesman for Verizon Communications Inc. "It's very important to be ready for these things because communications is key for relief organizations, law enforcement and to help customers keep in touch with their family."
For the most part, it was the lack of electricity that hindered wireless communications, coupled with a decimated land-line system that left many people with the feeling they had been cut off from the world after Katrina hit Aug. 29.
"There was zero communications," said Waveland, Miss., resident Allen Calliham. "After about a week or so there was one spot over here where you could make a call. There wasn't a lot of (signal) strength, but you could get a call through if you went to the (U.S. Highway 90) bridge in Bay St. Louis."
Mr. Calliham said he was not able to contact his family and friends to let them know he was alive until he made his way into Alabama and Florida as he fled the devastation in his hometown.
Some users on the coast say they never lost cellular service.
Jim Catchot, a dispatcher with the Ocean Springs Police Department, said his Cellular South telephone was the only phone in the department that worked.
George Sholl, the coordinator of Jackson County Emergency Communications, said that coverage was spotty but that Cellular South's service did work.
"Cell South was the one everybody was using," he said. "Whenever you start talking about everybody calling in to see how people were doing, there were some busy problems ... I think they've done some work to fix that."
Mr. Sholl said text messaging also worked when voice calls did not.
Gov. Haley Barbour has said that communications were so spotty in the days after the storm that the head of the Mississippi National Guard "might as well have been a Civil War general."
"Pitiful. Absolutely no communications," Chief McNeil said of the hard-hit area. "There was no way to communicate between here, Waveland and the rest of Hancock County."
Chief McNeil said his department was isolated until satellite phones were brought in two or three days after the storm.
The department has invested in satellite phones and an 800-megahertz digital trunk system that should allow for communications between first responders, Chief McNeil said.
Jackson-based Cellular South, which said its network was 60 percent operational one day after the storm, is investing more than $8 million in equipment and system upgrades such as microwave technology that can circumvent damaged or destroyed land-line systems. Privately held Cellular South does not release subscriber numbers, but it is rated as a Tier 2 company, which generally has more than 500,000 users, spokeswoman Tanya Rankin said.
The company hopes the improvements will fend of problems similar to those caused by Katrina, said Tony Kent, the vice president of engineering and network operations.
"Additionally, we are investing $78 million in 2006 to add 200 new cell sites to our wireless network across Mississippi. Approximately 40 of those will be added in south Mississippi," Mr. Kent said.
Cingular Wireless LLC, the nation's largest cell phone provider, just unveiled a mobile command center that can accommodate 30 employees and rapidly respond to hard-hit areas, said Joe Larussa, the vice president of Cingular's operations in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and northwest Florida. The company says it's ready to deploy more than 50 mobile cellular towers.
Cellular South also has ordered a mobile command center but, more important, the company had a centrally located field headquarters operating on the coast, said Jim Richmond, the director of corporate sales.
Cingular is investing $1.8 billion on its system in the Southeast, adding 800 cell sites and spending $60 million for hurricane preparation, company spokeswoman Dawn Benton said.
Company workers had a hard time getting to cell towers in Mississippi and Louisiana to make repairs or refuel generators because trees, debris and flood water blocked roads. That's why Verizon prefers to connect most of its generators to natural gas lines or propane tanks that run longer than diesel generators, Mr. Kimball said.
He also said that Verizon will have thousands of cellular phones available to the emergency responders and charitable organizations that snapped up phones after Katrina.
"Different carriers fare differently," he said. "So we'll find law enforcement that may be having problems with one carrier and our phones work in that area, so as quickly as possible we'll try to distribute phones to those who need it. The volume last year was really significant, so we had to bring in cell phones and air cards from across the country."
The cell phone companies also are urging their customers to prepare. The companies say people should charge their batteries if a storm threatens to make landfall, program emergency numbers and use text messaging, which is more reliable when circuits are jammed with calls.
"We've seen that preparation equals performance in emergencies as well as every day, and we want to help residents communicate and stay safe before, during and after storms," said Katherine Greene, Verizon's Gulf Coast region president.
Cingular Wireless offers tips on how to make the best use of cell phones if there is a hurricane or other catastrophe:
- Program all vital and emergency numbers such as police and fire departments into your cell phone. Also, program the numbers of family members.
- Have a family communications plan. Cingular suggests designating someone outside the area as a central contact for family members who might become separated from loved ones.
- Keep wireless phone batteries charged at all times and have an alternate plan, such as extra batteries or a car charger in case of extended power outages.
- Keep your wireless phone dry and out of the elements.
- Forward your home number to your wireless phone. Call forwarding is based out of a company's central office, so you will get forwarded calls even if your land line is disrupted.
- Use text messaging, which often will go through more quickly than a voice call.
- Keep your non-emergency calls to a minimum and limit calls to the most important ones.
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