After striking the coast of Texas as a Category 4 storm, Hurricane Harvey wrought extensive damage and caused major flooding across the Gulf Coast. People in Texas were hit worst by the storm, and within a few days after Harvey made landfall, there were reports that tens of thousands of Texans were left without cell phone service or internet. With this in mind, we’ll now look at the extent of the damage caused by the storm and how the cell phone and internet outages due to Harvey compare to previous major hurricanes like Katrina.
Considering the fact that Hurricane Harvey was the worst storm to hit the US in more than 13 years and the biggest hurricane to hit Texas since Hurricane Carla in 1961, the damage caused by the storm actually could have been much worse. After the storm made landfall, it left destructive flooding in an area equal to the size of Lake Michigan and home to more than 4.5 million people. As a result, tens of thousands of people were left without electricity, cell phone service or internet.
Those people living in the four Texas Gulf Coast counties where the storm first made landfall were the worst affected. For instance, the Federal Communications Commission noted that approximately 95% of all cell phone towers in Aransas County and 85% of the towers in nearby Refugio County were knocked out of commission. At the same time, the damage could have potentially been much worse. In fact, the FCC noted that only around 4% of the 7,804 cellphone towers in the storm’s path suffered outages during the storm, which equates to less than 400 total towers.
Comparing Harvey to Previous Major Storms
Despite the strength of the storm and the extreme flooding it left in its wake, Hurricane Harvey actually didn’t cause nearly as much damage to the communications infrastructure as previous major storms. For instance, Hurricane Katrina knocked out more than 1,000 cellphone towers in the New Orleans area alone, whereas Hurricane Sandy in 2012 damaged nearly 25% of the wireless networks in its path. Looking at it from this perspective, it seems that the Texas Gulf Coast actually got off fairly lightly considering just how powerful Harvey was when it made landfall.
Minimizing the Damage of Future Natural Disasters
There are many possible explanations for why Hurricane Harvey didn’t cause as much damage to cell phone and internet networks as previous major storms. However, the biggest reason seems to be that wireless carriers were far more prepared for Harvey than they were for previous storms. For starters, most major wireless carriers were prepared before the storm to help restore cell phone service as quickly as possible.
One major problem in previous storms is that the backup generators used to power the cell phone towers in the event of a power outage ended up running out of fuel. To alleviate this issue, wireless providers like AT&T and Verizon made sure to refill their backup generators with fuel prior to the storm, and both companies also had refueling trucks on standby in key locations to refuel any generators that threatened to run out. Further aiding the effort was the fact that all major wireless carriers prepared for the storm by sending out portable cell towers, so-called cell sites on wheels (COWS), that they could then deploy to areas where the communications infrastructure was damaged.
Some Texas residents also learned lessons from past storms and prepared themselves ahead of time for any loss of cell phone or internet service. For some, this meant installing a very small aperture terminal or VSAT that would allow them to continue to communicate over satellite even if the cell phone towers were damaged. As a result of efforts like this, many Texas residents were still able to call for help and be rescued in spite of the loss of power and cell phone service.
The fact that Hurricane Harvey didn’t cause nearly as much damage to the communications infrastructure as previous storms is definitely something to be celebrated. Of course, it might not seem that way for those that were directly in the storm’s path and suffered the brunt of the damage. However, the evidence does seem to indicate that the government and wireless carriers have learned their lessons from previous storms, which should serve well when the next major storm strikes.