'Charley’ Lessons Pay Dividends

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The struggle to recover from Hurricane Charley has helped Florida’s operators cope with the latest hurricane, Labor Day weekend’s unwelcome visitor, Frances.

“A few more hurricanes and we’ll really have this down,” was one cable executive’s dark joke last week.

Company officials say backup repair crews were still in the state when Frances struck and they continued with new recovery efforts.

Many repeated tactics they tried in August: for example, Adelphia Communications Corp. closed its West Palm Beach call center as the storm approached and rerouted traffic to other centers across the country.

POWER WOES

Adelphia has 700,000 customers in Florida, 600,000 of whom were without service by the time Frances finished pounding the state on Sept 6. By late last week, 220,000 customers were still without service, but company spokeswoman Erica Stull attributed the continued outages to lack of power.

The cable plant itself came through the storm “in good shape,” she said.

All of the operators cited lack of electricity for the slow renewal of communications services. After Frances passed, the state’s largest energy provider, Florida Power & Light, reported that 2.8 million homes were without power. An estimated 1.8 million were restored by Sept. 7.

Post-hurricane flooding slowed full restoration, as did traffic caused when evacuated residents returned to their homes.

Bright House Networks — hardest hit by the August storm, Charley — came through Frances without as much trauma, spokeswoman Jennifer Mooney said. The company’s local news channel, Tampa’s BayNews 9, became an important information resource, she said, as its audio was contained in an emergency override of AM stations so residents could listen to the coverage on battery-powered radios.

The company coped with evacuations and power outages by shuffling phone traffic around the state to various call centers. But Bright House is considering the option of enabling out-of-state call routing in the future.

Bright House was subjected to criticism from some local officials for its post-Charley recovery efforts, even though the company’s repair schedule was on par with other telecommunications providers. Mooney said the operator created public-service announcements that it aired on broadcast and cable stations between the storms to explain its recovery efforts to the public and note that cable repairs can’t be made until power is restored and it is physically safe to enter neighborhoods.

Because of Frances, 190,000 Bright House customers lost service. By midweek, all but 35,000 were restored and company officials hoped for full service restoration by Sept. 13, barring further damage from possible landfall from Hurricane Ivan.

Workers have been putting in 16 to 18 hour days despite dealing with home damage of their own and child-care issues. Few schools are in session due to the lack of power so workers have been scrambling.

“We’re doing everything we can to be flexible,” Mooney said.

SHIPPING IN ICE

Comcast Corp. reported 800,000 of its customers were affected and the company, as of late last week, had not been able to access some of the hardest hit areas on the Treasure Coast around Fort Pierce and Vero Beach.

Workers there are hard-pressed for supplies, and Comcast has shipped 700 to 800 pounds of ice to the area daily, said Filemon Lopez, senior vice president of marketing.

CAME TO WORK

Even though virtually every employee suffered some damage to their own homes, more than 100 showed up on the Labor Day holiday to answer calls they knew would be flooding in from customers, he noted.

“Our team is incredible, working around the clock since Monday. Actually, we had a good sales day” Thursday, he added.

Repair crews operated at top speed, even as the latest evacuation orders went into effect late on Sept. 9 in anticipation Hurricane Ivan would hit the Florida Keys, Lopez said.

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