Cover Story: Five Ways to Prepare When Disaster Strikes

Publish date:
Updated on

Mother Nature hasn't been kind to cable lately.

During this hurricane season, which officially ended Nov. 30, 16 named storms hit the U.S. coasts, including the most damaging — Hurricanes Ike, which hit Texas; and Gustav, which just missed New Orleans but did great damage elsewhere in Louisiana and Texas. In all, the hurricane devastation alone did an estimated $54 billion in property damage, according to the National Climatic Data Center.

Hurricane Katrina, which decimated New Orleans in 2005, was remarkable in itself, but since that killer storm in 2005, the country's TV providers have weathered firestorms and earthquakes in California, tornadoes in the Midwest, ice storms in the Northeast and even more hurricanes in the Gulf and along the East Coast.

Conditions were particularly relentless in May. A tornado damaged a Mediacom Communications system in Pilcher, Okla., so badly the company decided not to rebuild. Another tornado, this time an F-5 level twister, also hit the system's Parkersburg, Iowa, system that month. Torrential rains caused floods along the Mississippi, damaging still other Mediacom systems as well as those of Charter Communications.

The reoccurrence of disasters is reaffirming the need of many operators to forge specific strategies for coping with the challenges in order to mitigate business losses. For instance, operators in the New Orleans region said some of them had no formal written disaster plans before Hurricane Katrina — but they do now. The plans set out specific tasks as the hurricane season opens. The entry of a named storm into the Gulf of Mexico triggers a whole new set of tasks, such as truck fueling and designating the location for a remote regional headquarters to lead recovery efforts, followed by a set of tasks for mopping up after a storm makes landfall.

When it comes to disaster planning, you learn to “plan for the worst and hope for the best,” said Sharon Kleinpeter, vice president of government and public affairs for Cox Communications in Louisiana.

Nearly every executive interviewed said that pre-planning was key to a quicker recovery. Unlike with Katrina, this time outages lasted days instead of months, executives said. Cox officials said their Gustav-hit operations were 98% functional within 16 days. Charter's operations were restored to normalcy in a total of 10 weeks, compared with 24 weeks after Katrina.

While each emergency is unique to its market, timing and geography, most executives generally agree on five ways to recover more quickly.

1 Write up a plan — now!
As tedious as it sounds, it's vital to annually update contact information on employees, including the names and addresses of secondary contacts. Team leaders will need that information to check on the safety of employees after a disaster, and to do outreach to get those workers to their assigned tasks for recovery. Executives recommend 1-800 phone numbers for worker outreach.

After wildfires in California in 2003, Charter's Southern California operations used Web sites that employees could log onto to notify the company that they and their homes were safe, and to let the operator know if they were ready to go back to work following evacuation. Charter could also use the portal to leave messages for workers.

If there is advance notice, electronically map your cable system, updating which neighborhoods are served from which nodes, and note any pre-existing problems. Fuel up trucks and generators and deploy them throughout a system. Plan for getting more fuel from a distance to power your own trucks and those of employees, who may have to commute from temporary shelters up to two hours away from the work site.

Once disaster hits, be flexible. Be ready to throw a plan that doesn't work out the window. Executives who've faced recent disasters said they have relied on customers, who come to the office, for information on where services are out, and to describe the state of their neighborhoods. Mapping can tell operators what's not working, but residents can tell providers why things aren't working (planted felled by trees, flooded, burned strands). Such intel helps operators triage their recovery efforts.

Circumstances may dictate communicating by any means necessary. Cellphone service was spotty after Hurricane Gustav, and Charter executives discovered they could communicate with a tech who was inspecting the plant in her own vehicle, via the OnStar communications system in the car. The worker would use her voice-activated service to call, via satellite, to offices outside the disaster zone with information that was relayed back to the local headquarters.

2 Become part of the local response team.
In the wake of a disaster, electric-power recovery is always the top priority: All other utilities must wait. But telecommunications providers help smooth that process and receive timely intelligence by being part of the formal disaster recovery team at the community, regional and state level.

Cox officials say that since Katrina, the company has an employee “embedded” in the Louisiana Recovery Agency. Participation in the government's planning process can ensure that your company's needs will be included, and might even provide a business opportunity.

For example, after firestorms in San Diego County four years ago, an effort by Time Warner Cable to provide Internet connectivity to the disaster-recovery headquarters in the North County area lead to an ongoing communications contract with the Federal Emergency Management Agency through the balance of that recovery effort, according to the operator.

Following Gustav in Louisiana, a Cox executive was stationed at the regional headquarters at all times, passing information on the location of power-company restoration efforts to cable technicians. Cox was also able to piggy-back on the government's daily press conferences, giving a company representative a chance to update all media on the company's recovery focus and progress at once.

But efforts beyond the formal planning process can also reap benefits. After Hurricane Ike hit the Houston area on Sept. 13, workers of Suddenlink Communications learned the value of what you might call “dining diplomacy.” Technical crews made note of the locations of encampments of the utility technicians working to restore power. Some nights, the workers would take food to those camps and share information with power workers that the cable employees had learned during their recovery efforts.

The power techs responded positively to this “you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours” effort, said Todd Cruthird, region vice president of Suddenlink's Texoma (East Texas, Oklahoma) region. The power teams clued Suddenlink into the location of the next day's restoration work, which was valuable information in a market with spotty post-storm landline and cellular telephone service.

The formal and informal partnerships won't protect temporary plant repairs. Operators say that power companies, public-works crews and others may still snap plant as they go about their own tasks. But if you have a relationship with the other entities, they are at least more likely to give notice of the damage, executives said.

3 Take Care of Your People
Operators need to plan to feed, and sometimes house, their own employees as well as out-of-state corporate teams and contractors brought in to aid recovery. But companies must compete with displaced residents — as well as employees from other businesses and agencies — to grab hotel rooms.

Suddenlink got creative after Hurricane Rita in 2005. When employees noticed a local hotel in one of their affected systems was relatively undamaged but without power, system executives struck a deal. The operator provided the establishment with a generator in return for low-cost rooms for workers.

During Gustav, creative housing solutions ranged from paying local property owners to allow recreational vehicles to park on their lawns to targeting Indian casinos as the place for post-disaster rooms (gambling halls, in an effort to protect cash on hand, are built to withstand Category 5 hurricanes). Many contractors show up prepared with their own camp tents, executives said.

But housing is only part of the issue: Personal supplies are another. Suddenlink set up a key contact person during the aftermath of the two major 2008 hurricanes that employees could contact via e-mail for items to be included in twice-weekly provisioning runs.

When trucks arrived with repair supplies, they would also include vital sundries for the employees to purchase, such as food, personal-care items, baby formula and diapers. Two “company stores” were set up in Bryant and Tyler, Texas. Charter set up personal-item storehouses, too.

Executives compliment cable vendors, who often anticipate the need for water and other basics. After this year's hurricanes, “Companies like Times Fiber [Communications] and CommScope just called and said. 'We're sending [meals ready to eat]. Where do you want them?' ” marveled Travis Brown, director of operations for Charter's Tennessee and Louisiana systems.

Operators also used their corporate charities, such as the Cox Foundation, to help employees cope with property losses.

4 Show your community you care — give assistance to the most in need.
Disaster victims are grateful for communications services in an emergency. After recent disasters, cable providers were quick to wire evacuation centers so the displaced can watch news coverage of the approaching storm, or continuing fire.

It breeds good will and good publicity. After firestorms in Southern California five years ago, Time Warner repurposed one of its triple-play promotional vehicles into a mobile communications center, dispatching it to an evacuation center in Ontario, Calif., to allow consumers to call loved ones and check e-mail. The vehicle was part of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's assessment tour and was included in photo opportunities.

Cox set up a similar mobile technology trailer in Louisiana after Gustav. Employees staffing the air-conditioned trailer were also able to notify Acadiana Parish they would automatically be credited for a five-day service outage and Baton Rouge residents were credited for nine days following the storm.

Cox also took high-mileage fleet trucks, which it would have normally sold for profit at auction, and donated them to small communities to help them with their recovery efforts in Louisiana.

5 Publicize disaster plans to customers beforehand.
Operators created Web sites and phone lines enabling consumers to reach them in times of crisis, but executives conceded they needed to do a better job of publicizing the existence of these touchpoints. Customers won't reach out to you if they don't know where to find such self-serve information sites, they said.

The reasoning: If customers know how the system actually works, they will understand why, during recovery, their block may not be restored as quickly as the next neighborhood. A check of consumer blogs after Ike and Gustav indicated the lack of knowledge of nodes, and how they work, resulted in festering dissatisfaction from subscribers whose service was not restored as quickly as they thought it should be.

But consumers have little patience for tutorials on cable-system engineering, and a company's time is best spent on disaster preparation and dedication to repair and recovery.

One executive suggested crafting a newspaper ad at the beginning of hurricane season that subscribers could tear out and place on the fridge for future reference. Another idea: annual “in case of emergency” bill stuffers touting contingency plans.