Comcast Is Better Prepared in Wake of Sandy's Wrath

Oct. 29, 2013 dawned cool and sunny, the kind of fall day savored by Northeasterners.

A year earlier, those living in the greater New  York metro area were engulfed by Superstorm Sandy, a natural disaster that killed 130 people and caused $65 billion in damages along the entire East Coast.

Rick Attanasio, regional vice president of engineering for Comcast’s Freedom Region, comprising  Greater Philadelphia, New Jersey and northern Delaware has spent 30 years in the telcom business, including a stint at Verizon predecessor Bell Atlantic and 13 years at Comcast, including five in his current gig. 

Superstorm Sandy was especially hard on New Jersey, which sustained $37 billion in damage. But Sandy didn’t discriminate -- year-round residents, retirees and those with summer shore properties felt her brunt.

More than 1 million Comcast Freedom Region customers in the Garden State, in and around Philadelphia and Delaware were without service at some point, largely due to power loss, and Comcast suffered hits to its plant.

“Sandy was the most devastating storm that occurred in this part of the country, equivalent to any major disaster throughout the U.S.,” said Attanasio, a reference to Hurricane Katrina.

In an interview, Attanasio spoke about the loss of property and plant, the impact of storm’s rising tides and winds and tales of committed service by Comcast employees. He also discussed lessons learned and expressed hopes they wouldn’t have to be applied any time soon.

“We had been tracking the storm for a week. We had great information systems in place, and made contact with many of our customers,” said Attanasio, noting that Comcast had sent direct emails and deployed automatic dial-up messaging to residents of communities that were expected to be hit hardest by the storm.

But Sandy’s rage and power delivered  messages of her own.

Half of the Freedom Region --some 1 million customers-- was without power in the aftermath of the storm. Fifty eight of Comcast 93 network sites in the area bogged down in the rain, the flooding and the wind. There was damage to the cable plant. Some 10,000 customers were without service.

To combat the elements, the nation’s largest MSO marshaled workers from Maine to Virginia, from Florida to Pittsburgh to lend its Freedom Region personnel a hand. Back-up equipment, including scores of generators, was imported from Comcast systems all over the country, including Chicago and California.

All told, Comcast deployed some 1,300 workers in the field to work on reconstruction efforts. Adding in service technicians handling trouble calls and installations and the Sandy team swelled to 2,500.

Attanasio said “the damage and flooding along the shore was unbelievable, but Sandy’s was a wide swath. “With the eye of the storm around Atlantic City, you didn’t see all that much, but the winds were incredible and spread inland with the wind wreaking havoc. Trees and limbs fell throughout the footprint, including in Union, Hudson and Essex Counties,” he said. Comcast crew members worked with power and other telephone providers to erect/fix countless fallen poles throughout the area.

Attanasio also praised the dedication of Peter Imler, a head-end technician who came back from vacation to sand bag and protect a head end Comcast facility in Long Beach Island, N.J.  Attanasio said Imler remained on the island round the clock for a week to keep things working and that enabled the Office of Emergency Management to get up and running on the island.

A Comcast location in northern New Jersey was swamped, even though employees had built a five-foot wall feet of sand bags, when Passaic River rose more than 20 feet in the storm, totally flooding the facility.  But with pumps and employees whirring, the flooded site relaunched within 18 hours. “We were ready to roll before most customers had their power restored,” said Attanasio.

In Ocean City, a Comcast walk-up facility was totally destroyed. Comcast replaced that office during the prime spring and summer months with trailers to handle customer transations, and help with rebuild issues.

In Mantoloking, a northern barrier area between Seaside and  Point Pleasant, was especially hard hit by the storm, as 70%-80% of the homes in this affluent community were severely damaged or destroyed. “The mayor called attention to Comcast’s commitment to area that others abandoned,” said Attanasio. “[NBC News anchor] Brian Williams has a home in that area, and said he was proud to see Comcast trucks first on the scene."

Similar anecdotes popped up throughout the Garden State. “I’ve seen Comcast trucks out working all over the place, all over South Brunswick and East Brunswick and by the ShopRite in Spotswood,” East Brunswick, N.J. resident Debbie Simpson said on MyCentral “Comcast is being diligent. I’ve seen Comcast everywhere, although I don’t have power. I haven’t seen any Verizon trucks."

Attanasio said there was “unparalleled commitment from our employees,” and Freedom Region staffers were recognized during a special internal broadcast hosted by Comcast Cable president and CEO Neil Smit and Comcast executive vice president and COO Dave Watson from NBC’s Saturday Night Live famed studio 8H at 30 Rock in Manhattan.

Over the summer, Comcast, which provided a credit to those hampered by Sandy, greeted thousands of customers with a “Welcome Back” campaign thanking and letting them know about improvements made after the storm.  To recognize the efforts of theiremployees, the MSO also created a TV spot shot at the shore that showcased five New Jersey staffers.

Meanwhile, residential and commercial rebuilding has dragged on over the past year – and will continue in the future. To that end, Attanasio, who owns a house in Jersey, only finished its refurbishment in the last week.

If it can be said that calamities draw people together and make them stronger, Comcast has learned some lessons from Sandy. The MSO conducted an extensive post-mortem that has yielded a 33-step blueprint that is now codified across the company as an “Incident Management Plan."

Among the key takeaways were issues surrounding fuel, or more pointedly the lack thereof.  Getting around the area became somewhat problematic because gas stations pumps run through electricity and residents and Comcast employees were caught without fuel. Attanasio said that a number of Comcast workers delivered generators to help the filling stations get back in business. Comcast now has a fleet of mobile fuel tanks -- storing 1,000 gallons each -- in place and contracted with a fuel supplier to keep them full.

Communications also came undone during Sandy, as cellular phone outages disrupted connectivity. “We now have a better back-up plan,” said Attanasio of the satellite phone system that is now online for the region.

While Comcast was in contact with power and local phone companies during Sandy and her aftermath, it has  now established a more extensive coordinated contact network with members of OEM, municipal governments, local police and fire officials.

Some of these guiding principles were already adapted for weather last winter that impacted Comcast systems in the northeast and mudslides in Colorado, according to Attanasio.

Attanasio said the Freedom Region is better prepared now, but Mother Nature remains a mysterious and all too often a disruptive force.

“We’re making every attempt to be ready, but you just never know what will happen,” he conceded.