Don't count on cell phone service during Irene

Posted August 26, 2011 10:46 p.m. EDT
Updated August 26, 2011 11:43 p.m. EDT

— Access to a working phone can be vital in an emergency, so with Hurricane Irene fast approaching, many people are wondering whether their cell phones can weather the storm.

Raleigh resident Charlie Gray, who spent Friday packing his car full of emergency supplies ahead of Irene, worries that his most important piece of equipment – his cell phone – may be useless during the storm.

Earlier this week, many cell phone users experienced service problems after an earthquake in Virginia caused 5.0-magnitude tremors across the state.

"(My) phone was gone for 30 minutes," Gray said.

Verizon Wireless spokeswoman Karen Schulz said that was because many calls were placed all at once.

"We saw an exponential rise in traffic after the quake," Schulz said.

The call overload meant that many calls were unable to connect, including those to and from emergency personnel. Rather than calling in an emergency, Schulz suggested, try texting.

"It takes significantly less bandwidth to transmit text messages," she said.

Emergency officials worried about the possibility that strong winds could bring down cell phone towers altogether.

"All communications will be impacted because it does not take much to turn a tower the wrong way," said Dare County Manager Bobby Outten.

Schulz said Verizon is adding capacity to their network and has backup mobile towers ready in case any are knocked out of service.