BAY COUNTY, Fla. (WMBB)- Some of the biggest frustrations after Hurricane Michael came from the lack of one of the things we most take for granted, cell phone service. Communications between families, emergency workers, and government officials were practically non-existent. The Panhandle was virtually cut-off from the rest of the world.
Verizon Wireless was at the center of controversy as customers struggled to obtain full service for weeks. For a company that normally prides itself in excellent service in disasters, Verizon staff were taken by surprise when Hurricane Michael strengthened to an unimaginably strong storm.
“Our teams, for years, have worked year-round to make sure that all of our generators at our cell sites are fully fueled, that we have back up fuel-ready to go, and that we have a bunch of temporary assets like mobile cell towers, we call those cells on wheels or a COW,” said Verizon Spokesperson, Kate Jay.
Despite the response they had prepared for the Panhandle, the damage to their fiber optic cables was devastating. “So really the only wireless part of the wireless experience is your phone, right? So we need that fiber connectivity. Well Hurricane Michael, when it came in and caused all sorts of unprecedented damage in this area, it caused severe damage to our fiber network,” said Jay.
Not only did the storm damage the cables, but Jay said their repaired cables were accidentally being cut by other utility workers, leading the company to begin a don’t cut the fiber campaign. Verizon representatives profusely apologized for the issues following the storm but say with fiber cables now in the ground and in the air, along with the implementation of 5G and other tech, this will never happen again.
“We were disappointed in our performance but we fought back, we’re stronger than ever, we’re here for our customers, we don’t want anyone here to ever go through that again, but we have made investments with our network and we’ll continue to make those investments,” said Jay.
Meanwhile, across town, wireless competitor, AT&T, was also dealing with the unexpected strength of Hurricane Michael. “During the height of the storm, we lost all of the brick on the side of the building. Then once the brick came down, we had a small column that at some point maybe in the past was maybe a chase way that wasn’t quite as strong as the rest of the building.. and that opened up. It allowed the full force of Michael, everything. The wind the rain came into this room where we do have a lot of critical network equipment,” said AT&T DEG Manager in Panama City, Joshua Swindell.
Employees who were riding out the storm in the central office building in downtown Panama City thought the building could withstand a storm like this and they were wrong. About 10-15 employees on-site jumping into action to protect the network any way they could.
“We have tarps, we hung tarps from the cable racks to protect equipment and we wrapped a lot of the critical equipment and we started using big sheets of plywood to shuffle rainwater back out of the hole. We probably had 2 to 3 inches of rainwater in here at the time,” said Swindell.
The data in the racks at the Panama City AT&T central office run the network in the area. There’s no telling what would have happened if this team wasn’t here to save the technology, but one thing is for sure, if the building went, the network would have followed.
Thankfully, AT&T customers received service post-storm and the company loaned more than over 500+ Firstnet-enabled devices to first responders. Swindell said he’s learned now that you can never be too prepared with enough tarps, but overall, he’s proud of his team.
“The guys on the ground here were phenomenal, our leadership was phenomenal and they were like if you tell us what you need, you’ve got it,” said Swindell.