Big Wind, Huge Mess

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Hurricane Charley might total out at more than $7.4 billion in damages to become Florida’s second most-costly storm ever, but cable companies are still trying to assess damage in the hardest-hit areas.

In some communities — such as Punta Gorda, which took the brunt of the storm, and barrier islands such as Sanibel and Captiva — authorities did not even open the area to residents until Aug. 18, a full five days after the storm hit.

By the morning of Aug. 19, 113,000 consumers were still without electricity, according to Florida Power & Light. Cable operators need the power flowing to determine what plant survived the whipping sustained during the hurricane’s 150 mph-plus winds.

As of late last week, Time Warner Cable was still trying to determine how many homes even remained in its 85,000-subscriber Punta Gorda system, let alone ones with serviceable drops. By midweek, half of its customers there remained without power and restoration work was slowed by thunderstorms and lightning last Wednesday, according to the power company.

Time Warner spokesman Keith Cocozza said electricity was restored to the company’s Cape Coral headend by Aug. 18, and power had been restored to consumers beyond Punta Gorda, but the status of the plant at the site of the hurricane’s landfall remained undetermined.

“We know it’s the worst hit and we’re trying to get in there as soon as possible,” Cocozza said.

DEADLY CONDITIONS

Authorities are trying to be cautious about treading into the most-damaged areas, in light of the fact that most deaths attributed to the hurricane actually occurred after the storm passed and are caused by recovery-related heat stress, heart attack and carbon monoxide poisoning from power tools and generators, according to press reports.

Time Warner, Comcast Corp. and other local cable operators did what they could to mitigate damages during the run-up to the storm.

Others, such as Adelphia Communications Corp., took preemptive measures, shuttering regional call centers.

On Friday morning, Adelphia shut its Orlando facility so employees could secure their homes. Calls were rerouted to 10 other centers across the country, spokeswoman Erica Stull said. Customer service continued smoothly and the call center reopened early last week, although it was short-staffed due to impassable roads, she said.

The two biggest challenges to recovery in hard-hit Charlotte County were obtaining the fuel to run trucks and communications, said Steve Dvoskin, regional vice president for Comcast’s Gulf Coast operation. The MSO sent all company trucks out for fuel in advance of the storm and advised workers to take the vehicles home in case the office took a direct hit, the executive said.

But in the wake of the storm, gasoline became so scarce employees had to drive as far away as Sarasota, carrying 55-gallon drums, to fetch fuel for the fleet to continue mop-up operations.

WORKING ON FOOT

Even where trucks had fuel, workers weren’t necessarily driving them. So many trees were down that in some neighborhoods, technicians were on foot, with maps, marking where serviceable addresses remained and where plant needed the most work.

“We’ll be getting cable back on poles as soon as power is restored, but in the hardest-hit areas, a swath between Sarasota and Fort Myers, there aren’t even poles,” Dvoskin said. “They just snapped off.” Workers lack a vital communications link: the winds knocked down cell-phone towers. The operator has obtained about a dozen satellite phones that have been deployed to key areas in Charlotte and Lee counties.

Comcast also closed two local call centers during the storm, which sustained little damage and were quickly back on line after it passed. But like Time Warner, Comcast was waiting at the end of the week for a chance to assess what was left of its Sanibel Island plant.

Comcast’s Gulf Coast division serves 700,000 subscribers.

Dvoskin was amazed by at how both employees and vendors responded to the storm. By midweek, break rooms in offices throughout the region were filling with food, water and toys donated by employees and awaiting distribution.

The owner of a construction company that works for Comcast had moved his luxury motor home onto the office lot at the Port Charlotte office, to be used by workers with damaged homes.

Operators are providing support and relief for local workers by importing technicians from throughout the Southeast to help with restoration efforts.

Dvoskin said the MSO would try to find hotel rooms for the workers, but if none were available, workers have volunteered to house the visitors.

HELP ON THE WAY

One such crew left Time Warner’s Charlotte, N.C., division on Thursday, but only after completing updated safety training. It’s estimated they will be in Florida two to three weeks, working daily.

“I’ve heard of others going down to help in the recovery efforts, and I’ve wanted to be a part of it. I’m happy to help,” said Jose Cruz Garcia, one of the technicians, in a statement.

Because operators are still in recovery mode, they have yet to address the long-term impact of the storm. Officials have not estimated the final count of lost housing stock, which will mean months of lost revenue for cable companies.

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