BIG, Not Easy

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Metairie, La.— Greg Bicket was balancing business in one hand and death in the other.

On one phone call, the regional manager for Cox Communications New Orleans was answering questions about a commercial customer getting voice service restored at his business, just days after Hurricane Katrina struck. On the other line, Bicket was arranging to get the body of one of his employee’s relatives transported from a street downtown to a mortuary.

“It was just this Kafka-esque sort of moment,” Bicket said. In this “surreal” situation, the priority seemed to be recovering the remains of his staffer’s loved one.

“Yes, I’m from Cox, I’ll take a bullet for my customers, but this is really more important,” Bicket remembered thinking.

He tended to both tasks, arranging for the transfer of the body, and getting the customer’s phone service back. That repair job required sending a crew in a boat to fix a water-logged fiber circuit.

Such are the exceptional challenges Bicket has faced in trying to run what had been Cox’s 11th-largest system after the destruction wrought by the Aug. 29 hurricane. The bill from Katrina already has hit $115 million, according to a company filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. But the losses will escalate.

Cox doesn’t know exactly how many customers it will lose permanently because of the storm. In fact, 40% of its potential customers are gone, their homes rendered uninhabitable.

For nearly three months, Cox managers, staff and work crews have painstakingly worked through the devastation, both physical and emotional, to restore service to more than half of the system’s 270,000 subscribers.

This effort has included replacing hundreds of miles of aerial cable and fiber-optic lines and fixing almost half of the company’s “drops,” or lines directly into homes, in Jefferson and St. Charles parishes alone, where about 46% of the 447,218 households in New Orleans are located. Two Cox hubs in the middle of the city and in St. Bernard Parish — containing routers, switches and transmission equipment — took on more than one foot of water. Complicating the effort to restore service: 75 Cox trucks were destroyed by the wind and water brought by the storm.

After the winds died down, Cox lost at least 80 of the curbside pedestals that house equipment connecting homes to its network. The culprits? Contractors clearing out debris.

As part of the daunting process, Bicket has had to factor in Katrina’s toll on his employees. They are struggling to rebuild a cable plant that took one of the worst hits in U.S. history, even as they cope with the personal losses that Katrina inflicted upon them. Although none of Cox’s original 850 employees in New Orleans were killed by Katrina, many of them lost relatives and homes.

“I don’t mean to sound dramatic about it, but we had employees lifted off roofs,” Bicket said. “We had employees in the Convention Center and in the [Louisiana] Superdome … You’re dealing with people who are hurt. People are traumatized. They have worries.”

SOME LOST IT ALL

Bicket’s administrative assistant, Ruta Thibodeau, lost her house and most everything in it and “is on her ninth insurance adjuster,” he said.

Some of Cox’s employees were heroes who rescued people from floodwater. But their life-saving experiences were nonetheless nightmarish.

Yet, under these most difficult of circumstances, Cox’s employees have soldiered on.

“The only way I can summarize it all up is the human spirit is alive and well in Louisiana,” Cox Communications Inc. chief operating officer Pat Esser said.

The cable system’s progress to date includes:

  • Restoring its network to areas — like St. Charles, Orleans and Jefferson parishes — that have power;
  • Replacing several hundred miles of coaxial cable;
  • Resuming billing for customers whose service was restored;
  • And reopening three customer-service centers and adding a new one.

Cox’s reconstruction effort has complications above and beyond addressing the needs, emotional and physical, of the New Orleans team.

Cox now has its full bundle — video, phone and high-speed data — up and running to customers mainly located in two Louisiana parishes, St. Charles and Jefferson.

“There’s been a whole lot of fiber-splicing going on,” said Bicket, who replaced Ray Nagin, now the New Orleans mayor, as head of Cox’s Big Easy operation three and half years ago.

But two other local parishes where Cox operates, Orleans and St. Bernard, bore the brunt of Katrina and the levee breaches. The lower Ninth Ward in Orleans, the parish that encompasses the city itself, and virtually all of St. Bernard Parish, which also endured an oil spill, are uninhabitable, with houses destroyed.

In those areas, brick homes sit askew, propelled blocks from their foundations. Most vegetation is dead and the power is still out throughout vast areas. The landscape is shaded a monochromatic brown, with a dried, cracked blanket of silt covering everything as far as the eye can see.

Crushed cars sit in driveways. Workers in HAZMAT suits carry debris out of buildings. Armed National Guard personnel patrol sealed-off areas.

“This is our Ground Zero,” said Brad Grundmeyer, manager of public affairs for Cox New Orleans, standing at the site of the 17th Street Canal breach in the city’s Lakeview section.

The bars on Bourbon Street may be open, but it may take years for parts of Orleans and St. Bernard to rebound, if ever. That clouds the future of Cox’s cable system.

“In a way, we’re like cities: We need people, too,” said Steve Sawyer, Cox New Orleans vice president of public and government affairs. “If we don’t have customers, we don’t have money.”

Before Katrina, Cox’s system passed approximately 500,000 homes. Now, the operator said its services are available to about 60% of those homes, or about 300,000.

Cox has not said how many of its 270,000 subscribers have regained service. But if the restoration rate is at 60%, that would mean about 160,000 customers again had Cox service by mid-November.

The remaining 200,000 homes that Cox once passed are now uninhabitable, and many may never be restored, according to Cox. And the company acknowledges that the future is iffy.

'INDETERMINATE LOSS’

In its securities filing earlier this month, Cox said it had suffered “an indeterminate loss of customers,” and that the long-term effect of Katrina on the population of New Orleans, and therefore Cox’s system, “remains uncertain.”

Cox has other woes to work through. The city-wide recovery effort has in some cases sabotaged the operator’s repair work. For example, overloaded trucks carting debris out of the city are accidentally pulling down Cox’s wires, in the same way that garbage haulers destroyed its pedestals while picking up trash.

Cox was fully insured for interruption of business and for its plant, except for a $6 million deductible. But it will likely take years for its claims to be sorted out. And over time, costs and losses stemming from Katrina will be much greater than the $115 million, which includes $44.9 million in lost revenue that the company just reported for the third quarter.

As Katrina loomed in late August, Cox New Orleans turned to its standing emergency-crisis plan.

“The first critical decision is pulling the trigger” on that plan, according to Bicket, because many hurricane threats turn out to be false alarms.

And in fact, initial reports on Katrina had it headed for the Florida panhandle, sparing New Orleans. But on Friday, Aug. 26, Bicket spoke to Cox’s general manager in Pensacola, Fla., who has access to a meteorologist at Eglin Air Force Base.

The military’s weather forecast was that Katrina was in fact traveling toward Louisiana. The crisis plan was invoked, and Cox suspended its New Orleans operations effective 1 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 27.

“We have thousands and thousands of phone customers, so making that decision is a little different than when it was just cable TV,” Bicket said, since Cox now provides customers with lifeline 911 voice service. “But the bottom line is, you want your people safe.”

The day before, Friday, Sawyer and Mike Latino, vice president of engineering, had already been busy mobilizing for the looming disaster. Cox’s New Orleans crisis plan calls for a “red team,” roughly 150 administrative, plant maintenance, construction and engineering employees, to evacuate to Baton Rouge, where Cox has also has a cable system. The New Orleans crisis-management center was set up there.

That red team is Cox’s designated first responder. Its task: To return as quickly as possible to the New Orleans system after a storm to assess damage and start making any repairs necessary to get the cable plant back in operation. As it turned out, the red team would be spending four weeks in its Baton Rouge base camp.

As the red team made its way to Baton Rouge, Cox’s other employees evacuated New Orleans. Many of them scattered across the country, like other fleeing residents.

Katrina hit New Orleans Monday Aug. 29. It proved to be a double-whammy: a deadly combination of flooding and levee breaches, submerging areas like the lower Ninth Ward, Lakeview and most of St. Bernard Parish.

Cox’s Baton Rouge system was also damaged by Katrina. The New Orleans red-team members helped their colleagues restore the cable system’s network there in the days immediately after the storm, keeping busy until authorities cleared them to enter New Orleans, which was under martial law, to start repair work in earnest.

TAKING STOCK

Just days after Katrina, some members of the New Orleans red team were able to get into the city — to parts of St. Charles and Jefferson parishes — to do some quick damage assessment.

In addition, that Wednesday, Aug. 31, Latino flew over the city in a Cox corporate plane.

“It was eye-opening, water as far as you could see,” Latino said. “There was not a dry house in St. Bernard Parish.”

Sawyer got into the city and areas like St. Charles Thursday, where he took videotapes of the damage to the cable system. At the system’s large facility in Harahan, which had some flooding, Sawyer and several red-team members boarded up windows, trying to secure it from potential looters.

Water three feet deep surrounded Cox’s administrative headquarters in Metairie like a moat, although it didn’t flood the actual building. Authorities used the site as a staging area to float rescue boats downtown.

The storm had downed many of Cox’s cable lines, flooded some of its underground vaults and severed its fiber. Cox has nine hubs — which include routers, switches and transmission equipment to distribute its video, voice and data services — in New Orleans. Powered by generators, the hubs in Jefferson and St. Charles ran throughout the storm, even though power had been lost, continuing to provide cable service to anyone with electricity.

Sawyer saw evidence of that first hand in St. Charles, where he and some of his team stopped in at a fire station.

“One of the fireman yelled out, 'It’s the cable guy,’ ” Sawyer said. “They had a generator running, and cable TV was running. They were watching The Weather Channel.”

The red team is mainly made up of employees from Latino’s group, workers like field-service technicians, and many of them live in St. Bernard. Latino had a meeting with them the afternoon after he flew over the city.

Latino felt an obligation to relay the devastating news: He had seen the area where their homes were, and it was totally under water.

“That next few days were tough days,” Latino said. “Our issues weren’t largely technical issues. Our issues were people issues.”

One technician found out he had lost members of his extended family. In some cases, an employee whose home had been destroyed would be working side by side with someone whose home had successfully weathered the storm.

“There’s just a natural tension when one person finds out he’s fared pretty well off, and he’s celebrating that fact, and the person next to him has lost everything,” Latino said. “And we’ve talked about that openly at meetings.”

Latino’s advice to his workers: Reach out to each other. “We’re all facing damage from this storm, either directly or indirectly, through the people we know,” Latino told them. “But we’re a team, we’re a family, we’re here to help each other. I’ve been very impressed, very inspired, about how focused our people have been.”

Bicket would soon learn that Cox’s recovery effort would entail not only restoring its service, but tending to his “shell-shocked” employees.

Next week: The Restoration

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