How Cable Operators Respond When Major Disasters Strike Their Communities

(Editor's Note: Click here for the developing story about the devastating tornado that ripped through Joplin, Mo., on the night of May 22.)

Just weeks after tornadoes ripped
through the Southeast in one of the deadliest
weather incidents in the U.S., the swollen Mississippi
River now threatens homes and lives in
its worst flooding in a century.

Now comes the official June 1 start of the
2011 hurricane season, forecast to be unusually
active with up to 17 named storms — nearly
double the historical average.

For many consumers, the broadband connection
is a lifeline. That means operators must
ensure enough food, equipment and people are
prepared to minimize outages and complaints.
In prone areas, that has become standard operating
procedure for many operators.

“The key has always been advanced planning,”
Randy Goad, senior vice president of operations in
Suddenlink’s Mid-South Region, said. His region,
which includes about 30 systems throughout Louisiana,
Arkansas, Missouri and Mississippi, maintains
four trailers that the MSO can move into a
disaster zone to house emergency crews. Each
one sleeps up to 10 folks bunkhouse-style — “well,
more like eight, comfortably,” Goad added.

It’s not just about keeping networks online:
Deadly weather events can deeply scar local communities
and cause havoc for companies trying to
keep their own employees safe. At least 400 people
died as result of the storms and resulting flooding
on the Mississippi, and some 358 have perished in
U.S. tornado outbreaks in 2011 to date.

“In an event like this, the most important
thing for us in system restoration is the safety
of our employees,” said Chris Whitaker, area
vice president of operations for Time Warner
Cable for Eastern North Carolina, which was
hit in April with deadly tornadoes.

Cable operators in recent years have fine-tuned
their disaster-response plans to deal with the effects
of nature’s unpredictable wrath.

That’s in large part because cable companies
now provide voice and data services not just to residential
customer, but also hospitals, businesses
and government agencies.

“We’re not just a cable TV company — we’re a
telecommunications company,” Matt Favre, vice
president of operations for Charter Communications’
Alabama and Georgia region, said.

Cox Louisiana learned back in 2005 that small
details can matter in a big way. Because of its designation
as an “entertainment provider” in the midst
of responding to Hurricane Katrina, the National
Guard confiscated a tanker truck with 1,000 gallons
of fuel for Cox generators. Noted Mike Latino,
vice president of engineering for the system, “We’re
now registered as a telecommunications provider.”

While most big cable operators have created
weather contingency plans, few are prepared for
man-made events, such as a terrorist attack.

“That discussion is not necessarily part of our
industry yet,” Society of Cable Telecommunications
Engineers CEO Mark Dzuban said.

San Francisco Bay Area



Response: The operator’s
designated disaster-operations
center for the Northern
California region is
located in the East Bay —
away from the San Andreas
fault. Emergency kits with
water, food and blankets
are located at all Comcast
facilities. Managers conduct
regular “tabletop” exercises
to hypothetical scenarios
in conjunction with
state disaster-preparedness
officials; backup diesel
generators with 500-gallon
fuel tanks are tested

“We know the Big One is
coming. We just don’t know
when. Every business in
California understands

— Andrew Johnson,
Comcast California

Greenville, Miss.

Suddenlink Communications

Threat: Floods

Response: The Mississippi
River crested at 65
feet on May 16, near the
top of the levees in Greenville.
The cable operator
built a 5-foot sandbag
wall around the headend,
which is located about a
mile away from the river on
a mound.

In the worst case, if the
headend is flooded, Suddenlink
has provisions to
move in equipment quickly
to get the system running.

“We’re holding our own.
The unfortunate thing is,
they’re saying it will take
up to a month for the Mississippi
to recede even to
normal flood stages.”

— Randy Goad, senior
vice president of
operations, Suddenlink
Mid-South Region


Cox Communications

Threats: Hurricanes, floods

Response: After Katrina in
2005, Cox refined disasterrecovery
procedures to
plan for additional contingencies;
for example, it has
lined up secondary fuel
suppliers . With the Mississippi
floods, Cox Louisiana
went into business-continuity
planning mode May 9
but expects minimal impact
for New Orleans and Baton
Rouge, with less than 19
miles of plant (of 12,000)
potentially in harm’s way.

“We have a plan that starts
weeks in advance … We
need to make sure our
critical response teams are
close enough to respond to
damages, but far enough
away to make sure it was
outside of flooding.”

— Mike Latino, vice president
of engineering, Cox

New York City

Time Warner Cable

Threats: Blizzards,

Response: When a winter
storm dumped two feet
of snow on New York in
December 2010, a key
challenge was simply getting
TWC employees to
work. The system had a
regional operations center
establish a conference call
every two hours to monitor
where technicians were

“Never underestimate the
dedication of your employees,
because they continually
surprise us at how
passionately they respond.
If you can communicate
where they’re needed
clearly and effectively,
they’ll step up.”

— Brien Kelley, vice
president of operations
for the New York City

North Carolina

Time Warner Cable

Threats: Hurricanes,

Response: More than two
dozen tornadoes passed
through the state in mid-
April, damaging 500 aerial
drops representing about
five miles of cable. TWC’s
Eastern North Carolina
crews, who are experienced
in responding to
hurricanes, worked with
the local utility to restore
service as quickly as conditions
and power allowed.

“We have to follow power
— you need that to activate
plant. We have very
good relationships with the
power companies. We triage
with them as
they go
around restoring service.”

— Chris Whitaker, area
vice president
of operations,
Eastern North


Charter Communications


Response: The operator
last week was still finishing
restoring service to a
few communities after 118
tornado touchdowns in
the two states last month,
knocking out 2,500 spans
of aerial cable. Charter had
to truck in additional fuel
for the power generators
for some of its headends,
some of which were without
power for up to 12 days.

“There were poles that
were completely gone …
A truck was delivering propane
to one of our headends,
and we said, ‘This
truck needs to stay
because we
knew the
power was going
to be out
and we’d need
all of it.”

— Matt Favre, vice president
of operations, Charter
Alabama and Georgia



Threat: Hurricanes

Response: Since the
last major storm hit the
region — Hurricane
Wilma, in 2005 — the
system has implemented
100% battery backup in
the field: hubs have three
days of fuel supply and
the plant elements have
five to seven hours of battery

“Wilma was a worst-case
scenario…. We are better
prepared for a hurricane
now than we were six years
ago. And with new automated
[monitoring] tools,
we can tell much more
quickly where the

— Spero Canton,
director of public relations,
Comcast Florida
East Coast