PhotoIt used to be said that if tourists visiting New York looked at the local TV news their first night in town, they would spend the rest of their visit huddled behind the locked doors of their hotel room.

The same situation applies today to the 60 million or so Americans who are in the expected path of Hurricane Irene, a huge storm closing in on the East Coast and likely to leave a path of destruction from the Carolinas to New England.

There will be massive property damage and probably major loss of life.  And not only that, our cell phones may not work.  No one will be able to find the nearest Starbucks on their iPhone as they run for their lives before the approaching storm.

It used to be that landlines failed in times of emergency.  The most classic breakdown occurred when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas back in 1963.

No dial tone

So many denizens of Washington, D.C. raced for the phone that for hours after the event, it was nearly impossible to get a dial tone in and around Washington.

These days, everyone reaches constantly for their cell phones, fully expecting them to work regardless of whether the nation is under attack, flooded or being swept away by a massive dust storm. 

But the truth of the matter is that cell phones are, if anything, a bit less reliable than the old landline system.  The towers that run the system rely on electricity, after all, and while some have back-up generators, not all do.

Further, the cell phone antennas are mostly mounted on towers -- you know, things that stick up in the air.  They tend to blow down when the wind blows, fall over when the earth quakes and melt when surrounded by wild fires. Likewise, the fiber optic cables that tie the system together are vulnerable to floods, fire and wind damage.

But the most destructive factor of all is the avalanche of eager callers who grab their phones at the first sign of trouble and begin calling everyone on their "friends" list.  No telephone system is capable of handling 100% of its customers at any given time and the cell phone system is no exception.

Night and day

The major cell phone companies -- AT&T, Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel -- all say they have been working night and day to prepare for Irene.  They're installed additional generators, ordered extra fuel and set up portable cell towers on wheels that can be deployed to replace permanent towers that have been knocked out of service.

So does this mean that everything will be OK?  

Not likely.  Things are seldom OK on the country's most overloaded cell phone networks.  New York City is infamous for having some of the most overloaded frequencies anywhere.  D.C., where everyone basically talks (and talks and talks) for a living, is not much better.

What's a consumer to do?  The short answer is to make contact with friends and family before the storm hits.  Say what you have to say: arrange a meeting place, devise a plan, say your last good-byes, whatever seems appropriate.  Then stay off the phone until the storm passes so that truly important calls can get through. 

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