This story was published in partnership with Southerly for our Powerlines series, which looks at climate change, justice, and infrastructure in the American South. The series is supported by the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture at Columbia University, and is part of their POWER project.
When Hurricane Zeta made landfall on the Gulf Coast in October, 2.6 million people in the southeast U.S. were left in the dark. From the Mississippi coast to Atlanta to smaller cities like Anniston, Alabama, people waited—some for days, others for upward of two weeks—in living rooms and kitchens lit by candlelight for their power to return, reliant on the longevity of cellphone batteries and mobile chargers.
Caressa Chester, a climate justice program officer at Foundation for Louisiana who has lived in the state for five years, said that after the worst of Zeta passed, she and her neighbors gathered outside their homes to take stock of the damage and pool their resources.
"My power was on and off for about 48 hours, but my internet was spotty for weeks after," she said. "None of us really knew what was going on—a lot of information traveled by word-of-mouth from neighbors or texting friends."
Power lines were down, backup generators shot, transformers waterlogged. Servers, fiber optic cabling, and satellite signals were largely unavailable, having succumbed to extreme weather they weren't designed to withstand. In Louisiana alone, more than 500,000 people lost power. The storm knocked out cellphone towers; hospitals couldn't access digital medical records. Local schools and universities canceled virtual classes. The COVID-19 pandemic made the situation even more difficult, especially for those staying in shelters or hotels where social distancing was challenging.
Much of the South's early communications infrastructure was installed in the 1960s, expanded during the late 1980s and early 1990s, and remains in use today. According to industry experts and data from institutions like the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, it is nearing the end of its life span. Without serious intervention by federal and state governments, these systems may not hold up to extreme weather events as they grow in intensity and frequency due to climate change.
All of our infrastructure—from electricity to internet to sanitation—is interconnected, said Carol Barford, one of the researchers on a 2018 study about the threat posed to internet infrastructure by rising sea levels. Barford is also the director for the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment at the University of Michigan and University of Wisconsin, Madison.
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"If the power goes out, your communication goes out—and that extends to other forms of infrastructure as well," she said. "If the roads go out, communications go out because service people aren't able to get to the things that need to be fixed. Water infrastructure is weakened when draining and stormwater management are affected, and if that goes out, communications infrastructure may be inundated."
The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season ended on November 30, though storm activities stretched beyond. It brought the 30 named storms—including 12 that hit the U.S., five of which hit the Gulf Coast—as well as other hazardous weather events, including tornadoes and heavy storms. One particularly damaging one was Hurricane Isaias in August, which tore up the East coast and left some 13.8 million people from South Carolina to Maine without electricity.
But this isn't just a hurricane season problem. Just before the pandemic led to shutdowns in March 2020, middle Tennessee residents weathered a tornado outbreak that caused more than 70,000 people to lose power. Over the span of two days in April 2020, more than 140 tornados moved across the U.S. from Texas to Maine, affecting power in roughly 9.3 million homes.
The consequences of outages like this are life-threatening, said David Theodore, chief technology officer of Climate Resilient Internet, an organization aimed at protecting data in events of extreme weather.
"There is no 911 when cell towers are down, and if a hospital has to shut down and divert all of its patients because it has no data access, that's not a matter of a ratio or data," he said. "That is someone who might have needed critical care that wasn't able to access it. If we don't adapt the internet to the reality [of climate change], we'll be sunk long before sea levels get us."
Reliable broadband access is still sparse in both rural and urban areas throughout the South. According to 2018 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) data, 14 million people lacked internet access and 25 million lacked access to fast, reliable broadband connections nationwide.
The federal government hasn't funded the upkeep of decades-old power and phone lines, or install fiber optic cabling to connect more people to the internet. And they're running out of time. According to a 2018 study, within 15 years, more than 4,000 miles of fiber optic cable necessary to transmit data across the U.S. will be underwater. These fiber optic cables span much of the country, from Los Angeles to Seattle, New York City to Miami.
See also: Too heartbreaking to leave, too expensive to stay. More than 802,000 homes are at risk of climate disaster—mostly in the South.
There's also a risk of signals becoming weakened as water seeps into micro-cracks in the fibers, or from corrosion to connectors, loss of signal, and fiber breakage caused by freezing. The cost of installing one mile of fiber optic cabling is roughly $27,000; to replace the 4,000 miles in the study would cost more than $100 million.
Most people in the South rely on large power companies like Southern Company, Duke Energy, and Dominion Energy, and their subsidiaries. There's also a monopolistic market of internet providers, including AT&T, Verizon, Spectrum, or Comcast. Options are often limited to cable internet, fiber optic, satellite, 4G, and digital subscriber lines (DSL). Running cable in urban areas makes more financial sense to companies rather than trying to run cable to a few dozen people spanning hills and valleys in the Ozarks. In most rural communities, DSL is the most common source of internet access, as it uses a standard phone line connection. Some only have satellites as an option, which are expensive and hardly qualify as high-speed.
During a storm, a number of things can cause a power outage. Lightning can strike a transformer, which transfers electricity between circuits; flooding can short-out electrical systems above and underground. Often, ice and wind knock down trees that fall on power lines.
According to the Edison Electric Institute, every power company has a plan for how to respond to damage and power outages following a storm, and the aim is to restore power to the most people possible in the least amount of time. That means immediate efforts are often aimed at urban environments. Power plants are assessed for damage; transmission lines are repaired, and power is first restored to essential facilities like hospitals and to essential services including fire and police departments.
Southern Company, the largest provider of energy in the region, declined to answer questions about its disaster response and the restoration process.
The cost to clean up major storms is increasing. In Louisiana, the damage left in the wake of Hurricane Zeta will cost an estimated $2.8 billion. This estimate includes the cost of addressing residential and commercial losses. Entergy, the utility that services much of the state, estimated repairs to compromised cabling and power lines to run between $220 and $250 million. Following the tornados that hit Tennessee in March 2020, the estimated cost of repairs to damaged Nashville government buildings and infrastructure, which includes the power lines and fiber optic cabling that were compromised in the storm, was $11.5 million.
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Theodore, from Climate Resilient Internet, said that because the telecommunications industry isn't transparent about outages as they occur, it's hard to know the scale of the potential looming problem with climate change. "They don't have to publicize outages, what the nature is, how long it takes to fix," he said. "When the power goes out, we lose across the board."
Even just half a day of power or internet outages comes with serious consequences — but that seriousness is often lost on us, Theodore said. Alerts of incoming weather events go unsent, calls to emergency services fail to go through, and ultimately, lives are lost. Since most of these outages happen in the wake of storms, in the midst of getting first responders to communities in need and sending crews to repair downed power lines and toppled cell towers, there is often little room to fully consider the slow burn of issues caused by climate change.
"It's an automatic reaction to walk into a room and reach for the light switch. We're just so programmed, so used to having everything at our fingertips, and when we lose that … we're stuck," said Barry Keim, the Louisiana state climatologist. "That is when we realize that we have to learn how to slow some of [the effects of climate change] down."
The effects of climate change, which are causing chronic problems like sunny day flooding in coastal cities, have to be addressed to ensure reliable infrastructure, Theodore said. While there are often backups in existing systems, solutions don't come solely in the form of alternate means of power; True solutions come from addressing the fundamental structural problems that are contributing to the issues.
"You can put as many [backup fiber optic] cables underground as you want to, but it isn't going to work better, and it's irresponsible to act like this is everything we need," Theodore said. "I think a lot of us … look at these events and say they are anomalies, that they're acts of God—which suggests we don't need to do anything about them. But the thing that people need to understand is that it doesn't take a superstorm to take the internet down. It's one bad storm, one heavy rainfall, and we're in trouble."
Telecommunications and power companies often tout their preference for cleaner energy and sustainability, but they regularly spend millions of dollars lobbying to protect their corporate interests. One telecoms industry leader, Comcast, spent $30.3 million in 2017 and 2018 on lobbying against state net neutrality laws and municipal broadband while also rolling out green initiatives and paperless billing. These moves came despite significant contributions to the pollution that accompanies global power consumption.
BroadbandNow, a company that collects data on broadband coverage in the U.S., reported that some of the restrictions telecommunications companies have lobbied for limit competition and prevent cities from offering bonds and allocating funds to build networks, and that others require cities to restrict competition by artificially raising prices of service.
In 2010, the FCC released the National Broadband Plan to assist broadband development. Ten years ago, approximately 84.5 million households had subscribed to fixed broadband services, and in 2018, the number of households had increased to nearly 110.6 million. Still, the goals of the plan remain unmet — approximately 19 million Americans still don't have access to fixed broadband, according to the FCC's own metrics.
Work at the federal level directly informs work at the state and local levels. Through the FCC's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, launched in early 2020, more than $20 million will be invested nationwide over the next 10 years. Phase one of the plan was deployed in October, with the expansion of broadband in 627,000 locations in 45 states, including 14 Appalachian states and specifically 182,458 in Louisiana.
In Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration also created Broadband for Everyone in Louisiana (BEL) in August of 2019 as a means of providing broadband of at least 25 megabits per second to all Louisianans by 2029. BEL, which is to be funded by the FCC, was created under the speed standards established per the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. As of June 2020, no bill had been passed. The FCC determined that there are 99,200 locations in Kentucky and 166,406 in Tennessee eligible for phase one of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.
Smaller-scale initiatives are also in the works. In August 2019, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced a plan to bring broadband access to 447 homes and nine businesses in Granville. This plan came after a telephone company that services much of the Upper Cumberland region received a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, which supports federal-state partnerships in Appalachia, for $500,000 to cover the cost of expansion. One estimate for the final cost of fiber installation for this project is roughly $1.6 million.
Barford's 2018 study outlines three strategies to dealing with the risks to communications infrastructure in coastal communities: One expensive intervention is to rip out the fiber optic cabling that is currently at work and replace it with waterproof cabling; another is to reroute the electronic traffic through conduit and fiber optic cable in a less vulnerable place. "But that doesn't really fix what is called the last-mile problem," she said. "If your business or home is in a vulnerable area, that's not going to work for you."
The third, according to Barford's study, is to build new infrastructure—but relocating entire communities of people is expensive and unrealistic, as well as traumatic on those who have built livelihoods in these places.
According to President-elect Joe Biden's infrastructure plan, the government will invest $2 trillion to address infrastructure needs, including the implementation of universal broadband and the creation of jobs focused on environmental conservation and environmental justice.
Barford said she sees these efforts as steps in the right direction—steps that don't come a moment too soon. "The problems are already here, but with planning and improvements come new jobs, better support for the economy, smarter planning for energy use and greenhouse gas emissions," Barford said. "This could be the opportunity to push us closer to where we need to be."