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Facing Forward In the Storm

There’s an old saying that you never know who your friends are until disaster strikes. If that’s the case, then Comcast Freedom Region senior vice president LeAnn Talbot and her 6,000 employees found out that answer the hard way last Oct. 29.

On that date, Superstorm Sandy made its way up the New Jersey coast, laying waste to countless communities along the Shore and earning infamy as the second most-destructive storm in U.S. history, behind only Hurricane Katrina.

Sandy killed more than 130 people and caused about $65 billion in damage along the entire East Coast. For Talbot, the outpouring of help from the Comcast family nationwide, as well as the dedication and sacrifice of her own employees, was humbling.

Sandy caused more than $37 billion in damage in New Jersey alone. About 1 million Comcast customers in the state were without service, largely due to power loss. While there was some damage to the cable plant due to flooding and high winds, Freedom Region officials knew the storm was coming and had some time to prepare.

“We had our emergency plan,” Talbot said. “But it really is the commitment of the employees to deliver on that plan. Many of our employees, their homes were damaged or destroyed, we had people who found it very difficult to get to work — roads were closed and lines were down. I can’t tell you how proud I am of them. They put their lives on hold.”

Talbot told one story of a head-end technician who came back from vacation to sand bag and protect a phone switch at a Comcast facility in Long Beach Island, N.J.

“He got back on the island and stayed there for seven days around the clock so we could make sure that the switch kept working,” she said. “That allowed for the Office of Emergency Management to be up and running on the island.”

There were countless other employees both in the region and outside who lent a hand — including top management.

“My first call that morning was from [Comcast Cable CEO] Neil Smit, saying, ‘LeAnn, what do you need?’ ” Talbot recalled. “He and [vice chairman] Michael Angelakis were out that afternoon with a fiber crew.”

Executive vice president of human resources Bill Strahan made calls to find hotel rooms for employees, while systems in Florida and Chicago sent generators and calls to offer help came even as far away as the California region, Talbot recalled.

“I knew everybody had our backs,” she said.

All in all, Comcast replaced about 144 miles of infrastructure in the region, which is still clawing its way back. While Comcast has restored service in most of the communities, some, according to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, probably won’t recover fully for another 18 to 24 months.

But Comcast’s dedication and commitment during the disaster is beginning to show some additional dividends. For example, Mayor George Nebel of Mantoloking, N.J. — one of the towns hit hardest by the storm — switched his phone service to Comcast because of the cable company’s response during the disaster, Talbot said.

“We are local,” Talbot said. “We live there. We’re part of those communities and we’re going to continue to invest in those communities.”