Ice Storm Wreaks Havoc in N.C.

Among natural disasters, it could be the ice storm that leaves cable operators with the biggest headaches — and the greatest losses.

Operators in North Carolina have learned that first hand, especially Time Warner Cable, hard hit by a devastating Dec. 5 ice storm. As of late last week, the MSO's systems were still not fully operational.

Of Time Warner's four divisions in the state, three were battered the hardest: Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh. By the end of the storm, the company estimated that 800,000 of its 1.2 million customers in the state were affected, according to corporate spokesman Mark Harrad.

The damage was so severe that Time Warner Cable chairman and CEO Glenn Britt made a first-hand inspection on Dec. 10. Repair efforts after a disaster are always secondary to power restoration; but even following energy restoration, only about 70 percent of cable customers had been reactivated by Dec. 10, Harrad said.

Local repair crews received help from in-state contractors and Time Warner crews from as far away as Columbus, Ohio.

Time Warner is still adding up the losses, which will include several days worth of credits for all the cable and high-speed data connections that were knocked out, as well as overtime, plant replacement and extra manpower. The bill will be in the millions.

Greensboro close-up

A snapshot of the Greensboro market gives an example of the breadth of the damage. The day after the storm, 200,000 homes were without power. D.K. McLaughlin, vice president of government and public affairs at the system, said 312 nodes (25 percent of the community total) were damaged and 32,000 modem customers were offline. Another 7,000 to 8,000 drops needed repair.

That doesn't mean the phones were totally down: 250 customer care representatives handled 23,000 calls the day after the storm. But another 10,000 callers couldn't get through.

System employees worked as fast as they could. Vital connections like fire stations and high-speed connections to hospitals and doctor's offices were the first repaired, he said. Some 250 contractors joined the 260 staff technicians, working 24 hours a day to restore service, but by Dec. 11, 20,400 homes were still out, according to McLaughlin.

"It speaks monuments about our people, that with no power or heat in their own homes, they still came in to work every day," McLaughlin said.

And workers sometimes made Herculean efforts to meet their obligations, added Sue Breckenridge, vice president of public affairs of Time Warner in Charlotte.

Two system salesmen, Danny Bruce and Tony Bornice, jumped in the latter's SUV the day after the storm and have been traveling around the system, helping where they can.

On Dec. 9, they parked near the generators that service Gaston County's cable customers and manned the machinery for several days. They lived out of the vehicle, going home only an hour a day for a shower and to check on their own families. After power was restored near the generators, they still didn't go home, but volunteered to direct traffic, Breckenridge said.

Walked miles to work

Another technician, Nolan Deas, answered a call to the main police station in Charlotte. Deas powered up their generator to get them back online, but then stayed with the equipment to ensure continuity for emergency services.

The system's master control coordinator suffered damage to his house and car when a tree fell on them. Breckenridge said the man knew he had a leased-access program to get on the air, so he walked several miles to work.

Even after employees managed to get to the office, they found challenging work conditions. A call center in Kannapolis lost power on Dec. 4 in the freezing rain and sleet that preceded the ice storm. Customer service representatives who arrived for work on Dec. 5 found they had four overhead lights, plus computers and phones. They worked by candlelight, in gloves and overcoats, until the power was restored three days later.

Harrad said the company would continue to work closely with local utilities to restore services and "maintain the trust that we've earned" from consumers.