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Hurricane Michael's Damage To Communications Systems Has Slowed Recovery


Residents of the Florida Panhandle are still reeling from the destruction caused by Hurricane Michael. As a snapshot of where they stand now, 12 days after the storm, about 70,000 customers remain without power, some water and sewer systems are not working, and cellphone service is spotty.

A complete breakdown of communications during and after the storm crippled the emergency response, and now it hinders recovery. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Jim Melvin lives in Alford, Fla., a small rural town about 60 miles inland. His property looks as if a tornado came through. Trees are down everywhere, including one that fell through the roof of his house. He says he wasn't prepared for the strength of Hurricane Michael.

JIM MELVIN: We've been here 45 years. And we've had hurricanes, but we've never had nothing this far inland like this.

ELLIOTT: And he says he's certainly never been cut off from the outside world like this.

MELVIN: There's no communication here. And the cellphone might come on an hour and go off and be off for six hours or more. You never knew when it was coming and going.

ELLIOTT: Family could not get in touch after the storm to know that he survived.

That's been a major problem throughout the region, where hundreds of people have been reported missing because the phones aren't working. It's also hampered search and rescue operations because first responders couldn't talk to one another. Hurricane rescue specialist Adam Sheetz says it's an Achilles' heel.

ADAM SHEETZ: I never really thought about how connected I was until I flat-out did not have a cellphone. You know, even, you know, comms out here for us are spotty. So - and it's a hindrance.

ELLIOTT: In Bay County, where Michael made landfall, a third of cell service remained out as of yesterday, according to the Federal Communications Commission. The county's emergency services chief, Mark Bowen, says that's unacceptable.

MARK BOWEN: Our community has been traumatized. The inability to communicate because of Verizon not, for whatever reason, not being able to implement their continuity of operations equipment effectively.

ELLIOTT: Bowen says it's slowing all aspects of the recovery.

BOWEN: You know, the insurance adjuster that people need, the tree person that people need, the contractor that people need - absolutely, communications is the core.

ELLIOTT: Bowen says the county also had issues with what officials thought were redundant communications systems. Everything went down - satellite, fiber and cellular. The winds blew out lines attached to utility poles, and uprooted trees ripped apart underground fiber lines. Even the public safety radio system was compromised for a time. Bowen says they had no way to get word out about basic things, like where to get food and water.

BOWEN: Here's all these resources flooding in, but you can't even find out where to go get them. You know, it's word of mouth, you know, pony express.

ELLIOTT: The Panama City public radio station WKGC became a lifeline, broadcasting from the emergency operations center. Verizon Vice President David Small told the station the company needed to do more to get service restored but is dealing with unprecedented damage.

DAVID SMALL: Obviously, I don't need to explain the tragic nature of what has occurred. We're in a situation where many of these cell sites rely on fiber-optic infrastructure, and that fiber-optic infrastructure has been severely damaged and, in many cases, simply destroyed or gone.

ELLIOTT: Verizon is offering three months of free service to customers in nine Florida counties. Florida's chief financial officer, Jimmy Patronis, is asking the FCC to make new rules to prevent prolonged telecommunication outages in a disaster. He says no community should have to endure the kind of catastrophic failure that Panhandle residents encountered. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Panama City, Fla.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.