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Cleaning Up Ike's Mess

Comcast and Suddenlink Communications had crews working over the weekend to continue repairing damage and restore cable service to areas of Houston and Galveston, Texas, slammed by Hurricane Ike.

At press time Friday, Comcast had restored cable service to 51% of its 750,000 subscribers in the greater Houston area, according to Ray Purser, Comcast's vice president of public relations for the region.

“We feel like we've made pretty good progress the first week,” he said. “We still have a long way to go, but we are now ahead of pace of the main power company … our numbers are looking good.”

There are still widespread power outages in the Houston area, and both Comcast and Suddenlink have to wait until electric power is back in a neighborhood before they can send crews in to fix damaged cable, fiber and drops to subscriber homes.

Suddenlink's restoration work in East Texas has narrowed to its systems in Kingwood, Conroe, Lake Conroe, Huntsville, Lufkin and Nacogdoches, which bore the brunt of Ike, according to the cable company. Those systems represent about 64,000 subscribers, but Suddenlink didn't have an estimate has to how many of those homes were without cable service.

“This thing could have been a lot worse for us,” Suddenlink Texoma region vice president Todd Cruthird said Friday. “We're really, really proud of how we responded and our employees, but we still have a lot of work to do still. And I'm hoping that in the next five days, as the power comes up, we'll be getting real close to business as usual, which is phenomenal considering the direct hit we took.”

Suddenlink is using generators to test its network in areas that don't have power yet, and Cruthird estimated that 85% of his plant will be ready to resume operations once electricity is turned on again.

Neither Comcast nor Suddenlink had dollar estimates for how much damage was done to their plants as a result of Ike's strike the weekend of Sept. 12.

One of the challenges Comcast faces is finding food for some of its workers, which include 500 technicians who have come in from the MSO's other systems or are independent contractors. Many Houston restaurants are closed and grocery stores remain unstocked, according to Purser. Comcast has scouted out some open eateries that have been throwing in some free food to employees.

For example, last week Comcast ordered 400 burritos from Chipotle, and the restaurant chain added another 100 to the order at no charge “because they know they are going to employees who are working very hard to bring the service back,” Purser said.

Jack in the Box had an order for 500 hamburgers promptly ready last Wednesday morning for Comcast, according to Purser.

Suddenlink employees in the company's offices in Tyler and Bryan, Texas, have been sending supplies to fellow workers at the Ike-ravaged systems.

“We've had trucks running from Tyler and Bryan to bring groceries, milk, diapers, all kind of rations,” Cruthird said. “We've had to do our own internal Red Cross effort.”

Galveston was virtually devastated by Ike, and Comcast's plant there sustained a lot of damage.

“It's sort of a completely different animal [from Houston],” Purser said. “Obviously, in those areas, we've got complete devastation and the network's going to have to be rebuilt there.”

Comcast was setting up a communications center in Galveston — with computers, working phones and two HDTV sets — so residents stranded on the island by Hurricane Ike could contact loved ones and apply for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

There are an estimated 15,000 residents still in Galveston who did not evacuate before the storm. They are isolated, with no electric power, Internet or cellphone service, according to Purser.

“It's really a desperate situation for many families there,” Purser said.

FEMA will be supplying a generator to power the communications center, according to Purser.

The good news is that Comcast's 2,700 employees in the Houston cluster are alive and accounted for, although impacted by the deadly hurricane.

“We do have employees that have had significant damage, everything from their entire home being destroyed to flooding to major roof damage and structural damage to their homes,” Purser said.

“We are contending with that and working with our employees, especially our displaced employees, to find them temporary housing, taking care of their needs,” he said. “Really that's our family and we want to make sure that they're taken care of.”

About 200 Suddenlink employees in East Texas were directly affected by Ike, but they were not hurt and no one sustained a lot of damage to their home, according to Cruthird.

Comcast is running public-service announcements on local Houston TV stations asking its subscribers to remove any debris they see around cable gear, to help smooth the way for the cable company to make repairs.

On Friday, Comcast was also putting together a local Web site where subscribers can use a color-coded map to see where cable service has been restored.