FEMA, telecoms rush to fill communications gap in wake of Harvey

Telecom Workers

One of the biggest obstacles to disaster recovery following a devastating storm such as Hurricane Harvey is communications failures. Downed power lines, toppled wireless towers, and flooded communications facilities caused by punishing winds, rain, and flooding make rescue efforts exponentially more difficult and hazardous, frequently leaving residents and disaster response professionals unable to convey vital information or request life-saving assistance.

The Federal Communications Commission estimated on Sunday that nearly 95% of cell sites were down near Rockport, Texas, after the hurricane made landfall on Friday, August 26. (By Tuesday, 84% of cell sites in the landfall area still were down.) Overall, nearly 5% of cell sites across the 55 counties impacted by Harvey are out, leaving thousands of residents unable to communicate via mobile networks.

Thankfully, the federal government and some of the nation’s largest telecoms are offering resources and services to the parts of coastal Texas and Louisiana hit by Hurricane Harvey in an effort to assist rescue and recovery efforts and bolster a heavily damaged communications infrastructure.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on Monday announced it has dispatched 10 mobile communications office vehicles and 65 Mobile Emergency Response Support (MERS) personnel to the areas devastated by Harvey. These vehicles are designed to provide secure and non-secure voice, video, and information services for US&R (urban search and rescue) workers, IMATs (incident management assistance teams), ISBs (incident support bases), and survivor assistance.

FEMA also is offering support to enterprises in areas hardest hit by Harvey through its National Business Emergency Operations Center, which helps private sector employers communicate with and send relief supplies to employees in immediate need.

Meanwhile, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile said they are offering free service to subscribers in the areas most damaged by Harvey. The Wall Street Journal reports that Verizon will offer monthly subscribers in these areas free service until September 8, while Sprint’s offer of free unlimited service extends to September 1. While not specifying a deadline, T-Mobile said it is providing free calling and texting both for customers in areas hit hard by Harvey and people trying to reach them. In addition, all three telecoms and AT&T said they have repair crews in the field trying to repair damaged cell towers and other equipment.

Let’s hope the ongoing rescue and recovery operations go as smoothly as possible, and that the residents and businesses in Texas and Louisiana get back on their feet as soon as possible.

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