JACKSON, Miss. – Bay St. Louis Police Chief Frank McNeil faced the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina with no communications. And 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. (V). "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 landline system that left many people with the feeling they had been cut off from the world after Katrina hit on Aug. 29.
"There was zero communications," said Waveland 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. 90) bridge in Bay St. Louis."
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 when he fled the devastation in his hometown.
However, 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, Jackson County Emergency Communications coordinator, said coverage was spotty but 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."
Sholl said text messaging also worked when voice calls didn't.
But Gov. Haley Barbour has said that communications were so spotty in the days after the unprecedented storm that the head of the Mississippi National Guard "might as well have been a Civil War general."
"Pitiful. Absolutely no communications," McNeil said of the hard-hit area. "There was no way to communicate between here, Waveland and the rest of Hancock County."
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, 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 like microwave technology that can circumvent damaged or destroyed landline systems. Privately-held Cellular South does not release subscriber numbers, but it is rated as a Tier 2 company, which generally have 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, 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," Kent said.
Cingular Wireless LLC, the nation's largest cell phone provider, just unveiled a mobile command center that can accommodate up to 30 employees and rapidly respond to hard-hit areas, said Joe Larussa, vice president of Cingular's operations in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and northwest Florida. The company says it's also ready to deploy more than 50 mobile cellular towers.
Cellular South has also ordered a mobile command center but, more importantly, the company had a centrally located field headquarters operating on the coast, said Jim Richmond, director of corporate sales.
Cingular is investing $1.8 billion on its system in the Southeast, adding 800 new cell sites and spending $60 million for hurricane preparation, said company spokeswoman Dawn Benton.
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, Kimball said.
And, he said, Verizon will have thousands more cellular phones available to the emergency responders and charitable organizations that snapped up phones after Katrina.
"Different carriers fare differently. 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," he said. "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.