WHEN HURRICANE Sandy struck, it left hundreds of people dead in flooded and wave-washed communities -- and it caused power outages that cut off crucial communications for hundreds of thousands more. Lost access to cellphones, the Internet and cable television added to the confusion and misery in the storm's aftermath.
Wireless phone providers told the Federal Communications Commission that the day after Sandy's Oct. 29 landing, more than 25 percent of cellphone service went out in the 158 counties in 10 states most affected by the storm. Service worsened in many areas as generators serving cell towers ran out of fuel.
A just-released study from the University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute found that U.S. Internet outages spiked to almost twice the normal level just after the storm made landfall and didn't return to normal for about four days. Not surprisingly, outages spiked in New Jersey and New York.
Of course, the total impact on the nation was small -- down just over 0.4 percent compared to 0.2 percent on a regular day. Another analysis by the consulting firm Renesys concluded that about 10 percent of Internet service failed in Manhattan in the first days of the storm, meaning 90 percent still worked.
The Internet study was underwritten by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which is working hard on disaster planning that incorporates the nation's cyber-infrastructure.
Clearly, making sure power supplies are more stable would help keep cellphones and Internet links working. But emergency planners need to recognize how vulnerable many Americans are; even those with landlines may lose phone service if it's bundled to Internet and cable. High-tech warnings may be fine in advance, but recovery guidance may have to be delivered by more traditional means.
Families may want to invest in hand-cranked chargers to power their devices -- and in a portable, battery-powered radio that can pick up news channels, National Weather Service warnings, maybe even television broadcasts. These may be absent from many highly wired homes, but they're still sold in stores.
You can't surf the Internet with a radio, but even a one-way tie to the rest of the world is better than sitting in the dark with no news at all.