Snow Was Big News for Pacific Northwest Ops

1/18/2004 7:00 PM Eastern

Deep snow. Freezing rain. Weather so severe the airport was closed for three days.

Such a scenario wouldn't be news if it were Buffalo, N.Y., or International Falls, Minn., but was big news in the Pacific Northwest, where the white stuff recently made business a challenge — especially for Comcast Corp., which serves the metroplexes of Portland, Ore., and Seattle.

Snow has been the story since the week after Christmas, when a storm closed major interstate highways, stranding motorists. A big storm hit on Jan. 6, preventing many workers from reaching their offices in both metropolitan areas.

That day, few people were able to make it into Comcast's Seattle suburban office in Bothell, Wash., which was only able to stay open half the day.

"We had just a skeleton team, just those people absolutely necessary to keep things up and running," said spokesman Steve Kipp.

The system had prepared by sending technicians home in their service trucks the night before so they could be dispatched remotely.

The mood of that day recalled the exuberant feeling of a school snow day when you were a kid, with residents outside enjoying the rare snowfall, he said. The next day was actually a bigger challenge, as freezing rain arrived and added ice to the scenario.

That development caused tree branches to snap, taking residential drops along with them. It also made just getting to work difficult and dangerous.

With the hilly terrain in both Portland and Seattle, workers were fearful of traveling on steep, icy side streets and stayed home.

Despite the challenge, no more than 5,000 consumers lost service, out of 1 million served, Kipp said. The company cancelled and rescheduled installations so it could focus on repairs, he added.

Techs were lectured on safety, and by the end of that week the region had only one non-injury accident report, he said.

By that Friday, the climate had turned into a more typical Seattle winter, Kipp said.

"Six inches of slush," he said that day. "It's a mess but the roads are fine."

Portland was hit harder. The snow even prompted officials to close its international airport for three consecutive days, while the National Basketball Association canceled Trail Blazers games.

"This weather is nearly unprecedented for Portland," local spokesman Dan Williams said. Despite that, he said, "we kept the vast majority of our services up and running."

The region was servicing a limited number of installations, he said. Even though Portland usually does not get much snow, it does frequently get freezing rain that generates black ice, so trucks have been equipped with chains.

The technicians have even generated positive publicity for the operator. Local TV stations took note of efforts of cable workers to rescue stranded motorists and move them to safety, Williams said.

Techs were even put to work ferrying Comcast employees into their call-center jobs.

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