Getting ready for cyclone season: Mobile operators and disaster preparedness

Over the last few weeks my inbox has become increasingly crowded with cyclone alerts. They’ve been sent to me by various alert systems that provide details on the formation and path of cyclones in both the Eastern Pacific and the Atlantic. Though current cyclones are small and relatively weak, they are a reminder that here in Asia, cyclone season is upon us.

Tropical cyclones are one of the most destructive types of natural disasters in the world. A recent MIT report estimated the yearly damage from cyclones worldwide at US$26 billion dollars and predicted that it will rise to $56 billion dollars by the end of this century.

In Asia, cyclone season typically extends from May to November. During the 2011 season, there were a total of 40 cyclones, eight of which became full-scale typhoons. (‘Cyclone‘ is a general term for the destructive tropical storms that begin life as tropical depressions in the middle of the ocean; if they move and intensify, they graduate to ‘hurricanes‘ in the Atlantic, ’tropical cyclones‘ in South Asia and the Eastern Pacific, or ’typhoons‘ in the Western Pacific.)

For mobile operators, the critical question right now is who’s at risk and what can be done to help them?

The NASA Earth Observatory provides a useful representation of 150 years of historic cyclone tracks. This clearly shows that the most severe cyclones tend to strike in the Western Pacific. Cyclones gain strength above the ocean, fuelled by rising hot damp air, and then lose power when they hit land, dissipating rapidly. This means that the most vulnerable are island nations with a small land mass that are situated in these warm tropical waters.

The Philippines, for instance, is particularly hard hit by typhoons. In late September 2009 it was struck severely by Typhoon Ketsana, the fourth most destructive storm in its history. Just a week later, I was in the north of the country working on an emergency response team when Typhoon Parma raged overhead and became the most destructive typhoon ever to hit the Philippines. And this is no longer an exceptional scenario: it was repeated in 2011 when Typhoon Nesat was followed nine days later by Typhoon Nalgae.

Typhoons bring substantial challenges for mobile infrastructure operators. Strong winds can damage towers, knock antennae out of alignment, and bring down cables and supporting infrastructure. Accompanying rain causes severe flooding and landslides. Storm surges can overwhelm flood defences and inundate coastal areas causing further destruction and flash flooding. This three-pronged attack can hamper or destroy mobile infrastructure, cutting power supplies and making logistics extremely difficult for operators as roads are damaged and support networks strained.

Fortunately, cyclones give us a lot of warning as they pick up intensity on the open seas. Although their ferocity and exact site of landfall may not be entirely predictable, people in the path of the storm generally have many days to prepare themselves if the appropriate warning systems have been put in place. In the month before Typhoon Nesat hit the Philippines in September 2011, Philippine mobile operator SMART urged its customers to make their mobile phones “typhoon ready”. This is a simple process: keep your phone fully charged, store spare batteries, save important family and emergency numbers in your phone, and keep spare credit and waterproof storage bags handy.

And, as customers make their preparations, so too must operators. Before cyclone season strikes, comprehensive disaster response and restoration plans need to be drawn up. Key to this process is preparing the network’s power sources; backup batteries and generators need to be checked and refuelled (SMART’s standard procedures dictate that critical at-risk areas must have an average of five days’ fuel supply for backup power). In addition, convenient fuel stores should be located, mobile generators prepared together with emergency response and cell restoration infrastructure such as cell on wheels (COWs) should have been tested and priority sites identified. Finally, engineers must be briefed and alerted, and logistics need to be arranged for repairs and fuel delivery.

These disaster preparedness measures will be familiar to many mobile operators in at-risk regions but the challenge for operators in places like the Philippines is to maintain their services throughout the estimated 20 possible typhoons that may strike over the course of the coming season. As I flick through the many alerts in my inbox and chart the progress of cyclones blustering across the Eastern Pacific, I know we can’t prevent them from growing into typhoons but we can – as operators in the Philippines are demonstrating – make sure we are better prepared for the chaotic hours and days that will certainly follow their landfall.

Note: For those interested in subscribing to weather alerts, I use the Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System (GDACS) at www.gdacs.org, which provides both email and SMS alerts for many types of disasters, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a US-government site at www.noaa.gov, which sends alerts on weather in the US and the Pacific and Atlantic regions.

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