Grounded: landline use during tropical storms


Phone service was scratchy in the first few hours after Hurricane Andrew made landfall, but if you were out of power for as long as many people were (my parents were lucky: only ten days) you could at least count on the land line working. The thing wasn’t even called a “landline.” During the days of expensive Motorola beauties that looked like flat irons, you were only screwed if your cordless phone required electricity. When Hurricane Wilma, our last major hurricane, hit in October 2005, many of us had cell phones and landlines; Apple would debut the first smart phone exactly two years later. The worst that could happen was running out of gas for the car and generator.

As survivors of Super Storm Sandy made clear, a hurricane during the Smart Phone Era could mess things up real good.

“I think we’re more vulnerable [in terms of communications] than we were 24 years ago,” said Norcross, who anchored the WTVJ newscast for 23 hours straight during Andrew and is now a hurricane specialist for The Weather Channel. “I remember after Andrew there were a lot of people with wrecked homes but the phone line was still working in the kitchen.”

During Andrew, Norcross’ reports were simulcast on radio. Now, for many people, the battery-powered transistor radio is little more than a nostalgic relic. Television stations also have switched from analog to digital systems and battery-powered digital TVs aren’t as readily available as the small analog models were.

Society has become dependent on devices from cellphones to tablets and laptops that need a charge to keep working — and electrical grids are often the first to go during major storms. That impact is compounded by the fact that so many people have cut the cord and use only cellphones in their homes rather than landlines, which are usually more reliable during storms.

A Florida Public Service Commission report from December 2015 said Florida residents and businesses had 3.3 million traditional phone lines last year, down from 3.8 million the previous year and 6.1 million in 2011. The most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Health Interview Survey found that 47 percent of U.S. households are now cellphone only, compared with 20 percent in 2009 and just 3 percent in 2003.

There hasn’t been a major hurricane in the United States since 2005 — the year of hurricanes Katrina and Wilma — although there have been storms that caused extensive flooding. As a result, the cellphone network hasn’t really been put to a test during the era of mobile phone proliferation. “It is a large, unexplored area,” said Norcross.

In the weeks after Andrew, payphones exploded in use; for thousands of Floridians in south Dade, it was the only way to communicate. Every time Buzzfeed or something runs an article with poorly controlled smugness wondering why anyone but drug deals would still use payphones, I must remind myself that the white lib demographic clicks on those articles.

I pay for a landline: twenty bucks a month.

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