Metairie, La.— The Federal Emergency Management Agency at one point confiscated a truck bringing diesel to fuel generators powering its cable-TV plant. Trash haulers, their trucks overloaded from trying to clean up debris, repeatedly ripped down the system’s overhead lines.
And physical facilities weren’t all that needed repair at Cox Communications Inc. in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit. Employees are still on the mend, after losing homes and relatives — or helping others. One Cox dispatcher who rescued more than 100 storm survivors, for example, is on leave due to stress (story, p. 26).
In fact, three months later, emotions are still raw.
“I was stunned,” said Ruta Thibodeau, executive assistant to Cox New Orleans regional manager Greg Bicket, when she first visited her former home on Oct. 31, two months after the storm ravaged the city and its suburbs, rendering much of it uninhabitable.
“I don’t have words to describe it,’’ Thibodeau said. “You just kind of look at it and say, 'Everything I’ve worked for was gone in a matter of hours.’ You reflect and you’re like, 'Well, I have to go on.’ ”
'MUCH HEALING’ TO DO
In effect, Cox has to rebuild souls, as well as restore its system of wires and electronics to serve the customers that remain in or return to this big Louisiana city, no longer an easy place in which to live or work.
“We still have much healing we have to work our way through,” said Cox Communications Inc. chief operating officer Pat Esser, adding that employees are “dealing with reassembling life at its most basic level.”
Since Hurricane Katrina struck, Cox New Orleans has restored service step by step — and, in some instances, home by home — to more than half of its 270,000 pre-storm customers. This is how Cox went about it — and the adversity its managers, staff, work crews and contractors had to overcome.
Bicket and his staff have worked through almost 100 days of a nightmare — tracking down scattered employees; housing and feeding personnel; and protecting workers from disease and infection that could result from contact with fetid water or inhaling airborne microbes.
The simple logistics of getting work crews and their equipment to repair locations would repeatedly be complicated by missing persons, lost equipment or the need to keep workers safe, both in transit and on-site.
Case in point: Cox’s “red team,” the company’s crisis-control squad. The team’s field crews could not easily be dispatched from a downtown locale to a work site in one of New Orleans’s four parishes.
Each day, each crew had to drive in from the red team’s Baton Rouge home base. Usually an hour ride, the trip consumed two hours each way as traffic swelled on those roads that remained navigable. As a result, eight-hour workdays were easily stretched to 12 to 14 hours.
Even in the city, field technicians faced other roadblocks. They often had to make their way through blown-down signage, roofing, tree limbs and other debris blocking the streets. And in what had become a lawless land, security crews from the system’s parent, Cox Enterprises Inc., had to stand guard over the workers as they progressed along each mile.
“They accompanied us everywhere we went,” said Mike Latino, vice president of engineering for Cox New Orleans.
Criminals weren’t the only safety issue. So was health. Cox’s employees, as well as their families, were offered shots for tetanus, diphtheria and hepatitis from a doctor flown in by corporate officials in Atlanta.
And personal tragedy affected almost every crew almost every day. Roughly one-quarter of the workers in the field servicing customers had “lost everything they own,” Latino said.
Yet those crews kept working to restore service, helped by hundreds of volunteers from Cox’s systems across the U.S. and scores of independent contractors from Louisiana and other states. At a peak, 1,000 Cox employees and independent contractors were out making repairs, Latino said.
Just housing those workers was problematic. Cox had to rent 300 hotel rooms in Baton Rouge and New Orleans to help accommodate them. Some contractors, even now, are living in tents.
No one knows how many customers Cox New Orleans will ultimately lose.
When the good times rolled, the system passed 500,000 households in the Crescent City. Katrina and its resultant flooding have rendered 40% of those homes, or 200,000, uninhabitable.
Reconstruction has been painstaking. Cox’s top priority at the outset: to fully restore its network; repair cut or waterlogged fiber-optic cables that had been the arteries of its network; and reattach damaged “drops” to individual homes.
Cox began rebuilding from West to East, from St. Charles and Jefferson parishes, which received the least damage and include about 200,000 homes.
After three months, these areas are basically repaired.
“I don’t think any of us thought they would do even half of that,” Esser said. The red team has “done an incredible job of restoring the areas that we were able to re-string and re-hang [cable] and get construction crews into.”
But there have been unexpected hurdles. Cox’s reconstruction effort has actually been set back by the city’s cleanup effort. Independent haulers are not only knocking down the system’s lines with their trucks — they’re also pulling out the cable company’s pedestals, which house equipment that connects homes to the coaxial cable network.
All this knocks out cable service again, and angry customers blame Cox for the disruptions.
Police began monitoring the haulers more carefully after a mattress fell off one of the overloaded trash rigs, killing a motorcyclist, according to Cox vice president of public and government affairs Steve Sawyer.
In some cases, when a customer has witnessed a hauler pull down a Cox line they’ve reported the vehicle’s license number to the company, Sawyer said.
But the first 90 days after Katrina may have been the easiest. Cox has “kind of hit the wall” in New Orleans, said Esser, with 200,000 households, rendered uninhabitable, still to go.
The parts of its system that still need to be repaired were badly flooded; and remain without power — or people. These include parts of the lower Ninth Ward and Lakeview in Orleans Parish and most of St. Bernard Parish.
During a tour of St. Bernard and the Ninth Ward in October, Esser was shocked by the landscape of flattened houses and crumpled cars.
“I said, 'We’ve been two hours in the car, and we have not seen any home you could live in,’ ” Esser recalled.
TEARS WERE SHED
On Aug. 29, the day the hurricane hit, Bicket was in Baton Rouge with his red team watching news coverage of the storm and floods in the Big Easy. Some crew members started crying.
One worker recognized his home and saw driving water flow over its roof. “We couldn’t bear to watch it anymore,” Bicket said.
Bicket’s assistant, Thibodeau, had a home in St. Bernard. She and her family evacuated to her fiancée’s home in Mississippi.
After Katrina hit, a friend whose husband works for the parish sheriff’s department called Thibodeau to tell her “only the roof-peak tops” were visible in her neighborhood. Everything else was under water.
“It’s like, I can’t believe this is happening. It was,” Thibodeau said.
She stayed in Mississippi for a month, then relocated to a hotel in Baton Rouge. She has been commuting to work in Metairie, Cox’s administrative headquarters, since late September.
When Thibodeau visited her white-brick house last month, she saw that flood waters had knocked its front door off and tossed over heavy furniture, like her curio case.
The sight stopped her in her tracks. Her voice chokes with emotion describing it now. “You see all your treasures destroyed,” Thibodeau said. “You become heartbroken.’’
With plenty of stories like that of his assistant’s, Bicket said he knew his employees would need psychological counseling. Cox arranged to bring counselors on-site.
“Initially, people were a little bit hesitant, but as time went by people were not inhibited about standing in line, waiting to be next” to see the counselors, according to Bicket.
Still, he has seen witnessed Katrina’s residual toll on his staff.
“We’ve had meetings where people have just broken down in tears. We have a lot of people hang up the telephone and have to go to a quiet room, and just try to reassemble themselves,” Bicket said.
Cox is also creating a special blog so employees can communicate about their experiences.
Of Cox’s original 850 employees in New Orleans, 650 are now back at the system working. About 125 former New Orleans employees have found work at other Cox systems across the country, and 75 others are working other places or are not returning to the Big Easy. The system officially reopened Oct. 3.
Even employees who didn’t suffer losses are affected. Some are feeling “survivor guilt” because of what some of their co-workers are going through, according to Bicket.
Some Cox employees, like Thibodeau, wanted to come back to work to see their friends and share their experiences.
“Everybody knew where you were coming from,” she said. “Everybody was walking basically in the same shoes. I found it good therapy to be back, to talk to everybody and cry with everybody and share everything. And each day it’s good, because you realize you have to come back to some normalcy. You’ve got to continue on and do business, because without work and getting a paycheck, you can’t handle your personal life.”
Esser said he’s been moved by the company’s New Orleans employees, including one who told Esser he was working “12 hours a day, six days week.” Why? “This is the fun part of my life,” he told Esser.
Officials and employees at Cox New Orleans commended Cox Communications and its parent, Cox Enterprises, for financial support along the way. When Bicket was informed that Cox was going to pay its New Orleans employees their full salary for September, when 85% of them weren’t working, he said he got “this enormous lump in my throat.”
At an Oct. 21 employee meeting, Esser announced that Cox was also picking up the tab for workers’ health benefits through the holiday. He received a roaring round of applause. The operator has also established a relief fund that’s doled out more than $1 million to its New Orleans workers.
Life in post-Katrina New Orleans remains “primitive,” Bicket said, and Cox has had to make special accommodations.
In October, the company was dishing out more than 500 meals a day — jambalaya, hot dogs and hamburgers, chicken and the Big Easy’s traditional rice and beans — to employees at its administration building in Metairie. That’s because the decimation of the area work force has forced many local restaurants to close. Those that are open have long lines at lunch.
Sawyer and Bicket acknowledged that Cox’s customers in less-damaged areas, like St. Charles Parish, have been impatient about getting their service restored.
Cox’s approach has been to complete repairs and cable-drop reattachments in serviceable areas by a specific date promoted by that company. Afterward, customers whose service hadn’t been restored would have to place a trouble call.
Then a field technician would come out to that customer’s home.
That process frustrated some customers, because it’s taking Cox longer than the usual day to get a field technician to their homes for the repairs.
Sawyer said he had to tell those subscribers what Cox, and its employees, were facing.
“I had to explain that you have to understand, we have people working out here who literally have nothing,” he said. “You’ve got a home. You’ve got your life all back together. It’s not fair that you’re acting this way.”
With half its subscribers already restored to service, Cox New Orleans expects to make some more progress by year-end, according to Bicket.
“I would love for us to finish three-quarters of our pre-storm numbers by the end of the year, but I don’t know where it’s going to come in,” he said.
WE REBUILT THIS CITY
At this point, there’s not much rebuilding that can be done in areas such as the Ninth Ward and St. Bernard.
Short term, FEMA is just starting to set up trailers in driveways in those areas, so residents can come back.
Latino already has a plan to install cable service in the trailers.
“We may not be servicing that house, but we’re going to be servicing somebody at that address,” he said.
Cox officials in New Orleans and Atlanta said they’re committed to rebuilding even those areas in the Ninth Ward and St. Bernard, even though large parts of those neighborboods remain wholly uninhabited — even at Thanksgiving time.
But that rebuilding really can’t start until electricity is back on, homes get rebuilt and people return. There is little reason to restart a business if there are no customers to serve.
When and if rebuilding does start, Bicket and other Cox managers said they’ll move quickly. They have no intention of ceding areas like St. Bernard to BellSouth Corp. or direct-broadcast satellite providers, who are already actively courting one-time cable subscribers.
Instead, “we’re going to be very aggressive about reconstructing our network,’’ Bicket said.
It won’t be the first time Cox or the Cox family have helped rebuild a city. In 1913, Dayton, Ohio, was overrun by flooding produced by 11 inches of rain.
Ohio’s governor took personal charge of the reconstruction. His name: James Cox.