Midwest Operators Weather the Storm


Midwestern cable operators are still reeling after enduring more than a month of high winds, record-breaking rain and flooding that put their plant and employees at peril.

Mediacom Communications, the dominant cable operator in flood-devastated Iowa, has witnessed the worst of the storm, with its systems under siege by the elements. Mediacom serves two-thirds of the 83 counties that Iowa Gov. Chet Culver has declared as disaster areas.

The weather has been relentless. On May 10, a tornado damaged Mediacom's plant in Pilcher, Okla., so badly that the company has made the decision not to rebuild. Phyllis Peters, North Central division communications director, explained that Pilcher is a Superfund site, polluted with zinc from lead mining, so homeowners were unlikely to rebuild anyway. Quapaw and Cardin will also lose service, as they were fed signal from Pilcher.

Then, on Memorial Day weekend, an F-5-level tornado stuck Parkersburg and New Hartford, Iowa, destroying hundreds of homes, including one owned by a Mediacom employee. Despite facing these conditions, Mediacom installed two miles of fiber and restored service the next day.

For the last two weeks, floods have inundated a half-dozen Midwestern states, Iowa included.

Flood damage to crops in the Hawkeye State this month stands at $2.5 billion to $3 billion. Damages in Cedar Rapids alone have hit $737 million. In the six Midwestern states struck by storms, damages could approach the $12 billion to $15 billion caused by historic flooding in 1993, some fear. And $2.65 billion in disaster-relief funds for the Midwest are pending in Congress.

In Iowa, because the waters took some time to rise, Mediacom technicians in some cases had time to move power supplies and other vital equipment higher on to poles to escape the advancing water. But Mediacom still sustained damage to its operations, with the biggest hit in Coralville, where a levee broke on the Iowa River June 12.

Mediacom's plant suffered significant damage, blacking out phone and Internet service, though not video, Peters said. Hard work brought signals back to 96% of 2,800 homes by June 17.

Much like Cox Communications' response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Mediacom, despite damage to its own plant, has reached out to aid the community and aid workers. For instance, it provided a video feed to the state's Homeland Security and National Guard offices so they could monitor news coverage of the brewing disaster throughout the state.

Midwestern cities near the Mississippi River weren't the only areas facing devastating flooding this month. Charter Communications has about 250,000 subscribers in southeast Wisconsin, an area that was hit by tornadoes, hurricane-force winds and flooding this month.

Lisa Washa, vice president and general manager for Charter's Wisconsin key market area, said company employees toiled hard to maintain and restore services even as some of their own homes were flooded.

“I have a supervisor in Baraboo who was bailing water and dealing with the floods and left his home to take care of an outage for our customers,” Washa said.

After six inches of rain fell in a day's span, on June 13 — Friday the 13th — a local river and fields flooded. “Roads turned into rivers,” Washa said. “Backyards turned into lakes. We had employees in my office here stranded inside the office.”

That day, June 13, about 3,000 Charter subscribers were without cable service in the Fond du Lac area. But by the next morning, Charter had restored service to about 95% of those homes.

“We had people who were working all night,” Washa said. “They went home, slept awhile — they got three hours of sleep — and came right back in.”

In the storm's aftermath, Charter is assessing damage to its plant and trying to determine what assistance it can provide to employees who lost their belongings, destroyed by the flood.

“We had miles and miles and miles of plant and fiber and nodes and equipment under water, that we will be going back and proactively inspecting,” Washa said.

Charter also supplied shelters with complementary service.

In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, overbuilder ImOn Communications had to relocate its offices to a warehouse after its heaquarters was submerged in eight feet of water from the Cedar River, which crested June 13. ImOn's offices were adjacent to the river.

The cable operator, only 18 months old, had 13,000 subscribers prior to the flooding, which deluged much of its plant.

“In terms of our cable plant, we had three hub sites that were under water,” ImOn president and general manager Patrice Carroll said. “Two of them only had about four feet of water, so we got those cleaned up and actually had those up and running as of last night (June 18). There is one hub site where we have not been allowed back into that area yet.”

She is not sure how many customers ImOn has back online, because some of the neighborhoods have been so badly impacted that residents may not return.

“We believe there are areas of the city where homes will not be reoccupied,” Carroll said. “We did have employees whose homes were flooded and even more employees that had to be evacuated. At this point they're all regrouping. They're all back at work.”