SUBSCRIBE NOW
As low as 99¢ for the first month
SUBSCRIBE NOW
As low as 99¢ for the first month

Isaias: Cell tower outages add to post-storm challenges for Lower Hudson Valley

Nancy Cutler Michael P. McKinney
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

As if Tropical Storm Isaias hadn't done enough damage with downed trees and power outages in an already nerve-wracked Lower Hudson Valley, pockets of the region have become cellular dead zones after towers were damaged.

In some areas, there's no way to get a call through and barely enough bars to shoot off a text — even if you can keep your device charged. Many working from home amid COVID-19 pandemic safety measures have been left rudderless from the cellular disruptions.

Local officials say that they've found spotty cooperation from the carriers when they've demanded quicker repairs.

It's more than just inconvenience that's at stake.

"It's absolute utter neglect," Rockland County Executive Ed Day said. "They know that there's a potential problem and they're choosing to ignore it."

'Year after year'

The Rockland County Executive's Office had been receiving complaints about weak and missing cell service, Day said.

But various cell tower disruptions were only discovered when the Rockland County Sheriff’s Office Communications Division and county's Facilities Management team went out to check on the county's emergency services cell tower network after Isaias' impact.

A tree blocks a portion of Greenwich Road in Bedford during Tropical Storm Isaias  Aug. 4, 2020.

The county's system is connected or adjacent to other carriers. The team found that cellular providers weren't using generators to power cell towers, or if they had generators, they weren't fueling them, county spokesman John Lyon said. Cell towers with battery backup — which lasts up to eight hours — had run out of power. 

While the county's emergency network has been secured and is fully operational, Lyon said, the cell service companies aren't doing their job. Their efforts, Lyon said, were "clearly insufficient."

ISAIAS: More than 140K still out of power in lohud region; officials rip utilities' response

SEE IT: Tropical Storm Isaias damage across the region

UPDATED: Where to recharge your phone, and yourself

Day said the county recently invested $30 million in its emergency communications systems so 911 operators can communicate with first responders and the emergency teams can communicate with each other. But, he added, the public may not be able to reach them because their cell service providers aren't maintaining their systems.

Lyon said the various carriers hadn't been cooperative when the county initially reached out Thursday to check on the status of their networks.

Westchester County Executive George Latimer said during a news briefing on Thursday that it remains unclear why outages of services — including cable and cellular — occurred and why the disruptions are taking so long to resolve. "This is a work in progress," he said.

There are also questions about preparedness or lessons learned after past storms. 

But Yorktown Supervisor Matt Slater said it's time for preparedness to catch up with the region's vulnerability. 

"These storms happen year after year after year," Slater said. "We need to be characterized as a region now that is susceptible to these storms." 

Why no back-up plan

Slater said Isaias knocked out a Verizon cell tower located on police department property. "It really scrambled our communications for frankly an extended period of time, you know, more than a few hours," Slater said. Eventually, service was restored. But, Slater said, for emergency services, losing cell service is "a significant issue.”

He understands why the towers failed. “The towers need to run on electricity — that’s obviously how they operate," Slater said. "And when they lose the power, and you either need to have a back-up generator or a generator brought to them."

Bruce Graves and Philip Tsai from Briarcliff Manor, look over a toppled tree in Law Park, near the Briarcliff Manor public library, Aug. 5, 2020.

But he doesn't understand why the tower, a key piece of infrastructure, had not been hardened and a backup plan wasn't already in place.

Cellular providers often have mobile equipment — Cell on Wheels, called COWs and Cell on Light Trucks, known as COLTs — that can provide temporary cellular coverage to an area when towers are under repair after a storm damage.

Slater said during 2012's Superstorm Sandy, COWs were used to bridge cell coverage in the area. “But no one’s been talking about that during this storm," he said. 

Verizon spokeswoman Karen Schulz said that with Isaias recovery efforts now complete in the South, where the storm first made landfall, the company had redeployed resources and "teams continue to make good progress in restoration efforts throughout the Northeast.

"Crews worked through the night to deploy mobile cell sites for the hardest hit areas," Schulz said.

Orange and Rockland worker Jimmy Randt loads free ice into a car at Palisades Credit Union Park in Pomona Aug. 6, 2020.

The Briarcliff Manor area has been particularly troubled by cellular dead zones in the wake of Isaias. 

The storm knocked out several circuits around The Club senior facility where a high-elevation cell antennae system is housed, Briarcliff Manor Village Manager Philip Zegarelli said. Several providers, including AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile, were affected, he said. 

Zegarelli provided his comments via email. He could find a weak signal to accept a call, he said, but "give me time to run outside."

Nancy Cutler writes about People & Policy. Click here for her latest stories. Follow her on Twitter at @nancyrockland. Support local journalism; go to lohud.com/specialoffer to find out how.