As Hurricane Sandy battered the East Coast, flooding homes, submerging cars and taking lives, Colleen Marron could only wonder if her family was safe.
From her college in Maine, Marron, 20, couldn't reach her parents, two brothers and sister -- who declined to evacuate their Long Beach, N.Y. home -- because cell service in the Long Island community had failed.
“It was scary because you don’t know what is going on,” said Marron, a student at Unity College. “You feel helpless.”
One year after Hurricane Sandy triggered a communications blackout across the country's most populous region, city governments, federal regulators and wireless carriers are still grappling with how to keep cell phones working in a disaster. Phone companies have come under pressure to ensure they can provide service in emergencies, and while they have taken steps to bolster their networks, many question whether it will be enough for the next big storm.
The search for answers has become increasingly urgent as storms grow in strength and frequency and rising numbers of people ditch their landlines. Today, almost 40 percent of households use only cell phones, relying on wireless networks to contact family, friends or 911 in an emergency.
Sandy exposed the weaknesses of wireless in a crisis. With electricity out for days, cell towers ran out of backup power. Sandy knocked out one-fourth of towers in the Northeast, leaving thousands unable to make calls.
The Marron's seaside home in Long Beach is wedged between the ocean and the bay. Colleen watched TV images depicting the streets of her hometown being transformed into rivers, but couldn't reach her family by phone for three days, leaving a series of increasingly concerned voice mails, she said.
"I didn't know if the water got so bad they had to get evacuate," she said. "I didn't know where they were or what was going on and that was the scariest part."
She went on Facebook to ask whether someone could check on them. She wrote: "My whole family should be there and I haven't heard anything from them all day ... I just want to know they are okay and safe and what their plans are."
Colleen's father, John, said he wanted to tell his daughter that despite 6 feet of water in their basement and three cars lost to floodwaters, they were fine.
"But there was no cell phone service for anybody," he said. "No matter who you had: Verizon, AT&T, Sprint. It was like being in the dark."
"Thank God we didn't need to make any emergency calls," he added.
Others weren't so lucky. Without cell service, one Long Beach resident walked nearly two miles to City Hall after the storm to notify someone that her mother had just died of natural causes, according to city manager Jack Schnirman.
Since Sandy, many have argued that the Federal Communications Commission should require phone companies to install more backup batteries at cell towers.
"After Sandy hit, far too many impacted residents struggled to get service because far too many cell towers were rendered inoperable," Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said at a news conference last year. "In an age where many people only have cell phones, the bottom line is we must fix that problem ASAP."
But the wireless industry sued to fight off mandates for longer-lasting battery power after Hurricane Katrina. And today, carriers maintain that their towers have enough backup power and requiring more would be of little use if towers or lines connecting them to the network are damaged in a hurricane.
Instead, the Federal Communications Commission has proposed that carriers be required to publicly disclose how many of their towers stop working after storms. The new rule, if adopted, would help consumers choose which provider is most dependable in severe weather and “shame companies into beefing up their infrastructure,” said Howard Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge, a public interest group.
The wireless industry, however, says it has already spent the past year strengthening its networks to ensure cell service after the next hurricane.
AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile told The Huffington Post they have taken a variety of measures, investing in more generators and portable cell towers, upgrading cables that connect towers to the network, and expanding capacity so networks don’t jam when millions of people try to make calls at once.
But some remain skeptical that phone companies have done enough.
“I don't have a lot of confidence because there is no requirement for carriers to disclose to us what they have done,” Feld said.
“They can advertise massive improvements they have made, but at the end of the day, ‘Trust me, we got it next time,' is not very reassuring,'" he added.
One person in need of reassuring is Schnirman, the Long Beach city manager. In the days after Hurricane Sandy slammed into Long Beach, the city of 33,000 people was “in complete communications darkness,” he said.
Every cell tower in the Long Island community stopped working and representatives from wireless companies were nowhere to be found, he said.
Schnirman said he spent a week after the storm trying to persuade a wireless carrier, which he declined to name, to deploy a portable cell tower -- known as a "cell on wheels" -- to restore service in Long Beach.
“We reached out to the carrier’s customer support to ask about getting a cell on wheels and the voice on phone said ‘You might want to look that up on Internet. I don’t know what that is,’” he recalled. “Of course, we had no Internet."
Schnirman rated the carriers’ performance after Sandy “somewhere between a D- and an F.”
Still, he remains hopeful. He said he met with Verizon representatives this year and the company has improved service in some hard-hit areas of town.
"That was very heartening to see," he said.
More than one-third of Long Beach residents rely on cell phones as their primary form of communication, he said, highlighting the need to make wireless service more resilient when the next hurricane crashes into their seaside town.
“If we live in a world where people use mobile phones as a primary source of communication," he said, "then we must expect them to work in a time of crisis."
Our house was flooded with a foot of seawater. The entire downstairs — kitchen, living room, dining room, TV room, mudroom, two bedrooms, two full bathrooms, and various closets and hallways — had to be gutted, down to the concrete slabs. We lost 11 inside doors, and that, of course, included the door to the laundry room.
We do count ourselves lucky. No one died in Long Beach. In many ways the community came together, with those who lost some things helping those who lost everything. Friends and family took us in and fed us in the early days after the storm, and once we were back on our feet, we volunteered for months, delivering food and clothing around town.
Through it all, we had an upstairs to live in. When the children came home, the six of us spent most of the holiday crowded into two rooms. I became an expert at cooking scrambled eggs on a hot plate and washing dishes in the bathroom sink.
But it didn’t look much like Christmas.
There were no decorations because there was no room. Friends who visited brought us a stuffed holiday stocking, which I placed on a bookcase.
My usual singalong party for the women in my family, our female friends and our daughters was canceled; everyone was too scattered by the flood. My two daughters and I like to bake while listening to our stack of holiday CDs. Christmas morning is always Handel’s
There wasn’t much music last Christmas. My husband lost many of his records in the flood, along with the Christmas CDs that were stored on lower shelves.
To try to hold onto a little festivity, we took rooms for two nights at an inn on the East End of that had been untouched by the storm. The drive out east at night was surreal. The Ocean Parkway, which runs along Jones Beach, was being rebuilt, and detour lights shone as bright as day in the dark night. Driving through the middle of the island was unsettling, passing through neighborhoods that were still intact and houses decorated with holiday lights, when our own neighborhood was still so devastated.
At the inn, our was plastic: three feet tall, pre-lit and sprayed silver. On Christmas Day, my older daughter and I watched with , but it was kind of depressing.
So this Christmas we feel our good fortune as never before. Our house has been repaired. Within the city of Long Beach, most stores are lit and stocked, much of the infrastructure is fixed and the boardwalk — something I never valued until it was splintered to bits in the storm — is rebuilt and adorned with festive lights.
Our family has reclaimed much of our Christmas. We hosted a party for friends and family in our refurbished TV room. The hot plate is gone, and my daughters and I are baking again.
Lost in the flood was the “Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book” that I received as a wedding present nearly 30 years ago. But I was able to go to the magazine’s website and find most of what I needed. For brunch on Christmas morning, I plan to serve bagels, lox and the ripest tomatoes I can find in December, as well as Irish bacon, scrambled eggs and French toast casserole.
A few weeks ago, my oldest went into the attic for the Christmas decorations and couldn’t find the Advent calendar. In the chaos last year, she hadn’t noticed it was gone. When I explained about the broken handle, she actually used the word “crestfallen.” (She was an English major in college.) I’d been slow to pick up on it, but somewhere along the line, that worn calendar had been transformed from habit to family tradition.
As I write, we are about to go out and buy a new Advent calendar, although it won’t be as fancy as I’d once envisioned. Since the flood, money has been tight.
Advent, of course, is all about waiting. The world over, children are waiting for the big day, waiting to celebrate the baby Jesus’ birth, waiting for Santa and, yes, waiting for presents.
And still, our town is not fully restored. As many as a quarter of the residents have not returned to their homes. They are waiting for money, waiting for government appeals, waiting for the day when a new concrete foundation will be poured. There is hope here, but also anger and sorrow, and despair, as people wait for Christmas to be Christmas again.Continue reading the main story