As millions evacuate the mid-Atlantic coastal region ahead of Hurricane Florence, wireless providers are mounting an invasion of support crews and high-tech machinery to repair and restore connectivity in the storm's wake.
The incursion includes a menagerie of machines with animal monickers meant to help mend the hurricane-hit area's communications network. There are COWs (cells on wheels and wings), COLTs (cells on light trucks), CROWs (cellular repeaters on wheels), GOATs (generators on a trailer) and Spiders, webs of circuitry meant to improve connectivity in places such as hotels, command centers and temporary shelters.
Also set to be deployed: scores of drones to assess damage to the thousands of cell towers that blanket the North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia region expected to bear the brunt of Florence's wrath.
Wireless providers' response has grown in importance in recent years, as more than 52 percent of homes only have wireless phones, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
"It’s a massive operation where every cell site gets revisited, gets checked ... (and) made sure that everything there works properly and is prepared for it," said analyst Roger Entner, founder of Recon Analytics, a telecom research and consulting firm. "They are the second responders basically."
All the major wireless providers – AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon – are well into preparations for Hurricane Florence, forecast to hit the Carolina coasts with hurricane-force winds by Thursday. Among their main missions: ensure cell towers remain operational.
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Cell towers typically have on-site generators that keep the sites running for three to five days should the area lose power. Provided winds don't surpass the Category 4 range of 130 to 156 mph, cell sites should likely remain undamaged, Entner says.
"The problem will happen when the cell sites run out of fuel. Can they get to all the cell sites in time to refuel it," he said. "The quicker power goes back up, the less problems you have."
Verizon has fuel tankers staged and ready to enter the area once it is safe, company spokesperson Karen Schulz says. The company has set up two Hurricane Florence emergency command centers: one in Charlotte, North Carolina, to handle responses in coastal areas hit by the storm, and another in southern Virginia should it push ashore farther north than anticipated.
"We definitely don’t wait. With evacuations the roads get filled up and the prestorm weather moves in. We want to make sure everything is stationed," Schulz said. "We have hundreds of mobile assets we have moved into the area. We do balance and keep some ... outside of that storm area so they aren’t damaged and we are able to move them in very quickly."
In advance of the storm, wireless companies fortify offices and buildings that house critical network junctions called switches. Those windowless, nondescript buildings are constructed to withstand Category 5 winds and even bomb blasts, but they still get a prestorm once-over to check batteries, generators and fuel supplies.
"We have a well-practiced playbook," said Scott Mair, president of operations for AT&T Technology & Operations.
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Once the storm has passed, providers will use drones to assess damage and, if needed, a drone called a "flying COW" could be used to provide temporary wireless coverage until cell sites are back up and running, Mair said.
Those drones were first used in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria and have also been used this year during California wildfires, he said. "Some places that are remote and hard to get to, a drone works effectively in those situations," Mair said. "They are a key part of our tool kit."
Other mobile cell vehicles are deployed to help first responders and hard-hit residents. "We have mobile communications centers we can deploy to communities that have been impacted so people have a place to go and charge their phones and access the internet," Schulz said.
Verizon also said data speed restrictions have been lifted for first responders in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. Last month, the company took criticism for throttling a fire department's data speeds during a wildfire and, subsequently, announced it would no longer place such restrictions on first responders during emergencies on the West Coast.
Consumers can also take some steps to prepare:
• Plug emergency phone numbers you might need into your mobile devices ahead of time.
• Have a family communications plan so everyone can connect and let others know they are safe.
• Make sure your devices are fully charged and you have extra batteries and car chargers on hand.
• Have plastic, resealable baggies to keep devices dry.
• Set up Wi-Fi Calling before the storm. This could allow you to make calls if you have power but no cell service.
• If you need to make a call in the wake of the storm, try to keep it short so first responders and others can get through, too.
• Remember that engineers know about communication outages. Teams will get service restored as fast as possible, but flooding and downed trees can hinder that effort. Engineers will make repairs as soon as it’s safe to do so.
• Use text messages whenever possible during and after a major weather event to lessen network congestion. "Texting is a lot less resource-intensive for the wireless networks, and it’s a lot better on your batteries," Entner said.
Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.