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Ops Geared for Isabel

The only thing good about Hurricane Isabel, according to the cable operators in its path, was that its inexorable pace toward shore gave businesses four days time to prepare for the wind, rain and flooding.

"It's good to have advanced notice. Thanks, Hurricane Center," Edward Goldstein, a spokesman for Charter Communications Inc.'s Northeast division, said last Thursday afternoon (Sept. 18) at about 1:15 p.m. Eastern — around the time Isabel was landing in North Carolina at Category 2 strength.

Seventeen people were reported killed in storm-related incidents by last Friday.

As the hurricane bore down on the Virginia coast, companies with a heavy presence in the region, including Charter, Comcast Corp. and Adelphia Communications Corp., kicked their emergency contingency plans into high gear.

Their second-best information resource, after meteorologists, was any employee who had lived and worked through prior storms, such as the expensive Hurricane Andrew, which devastated Florida, or Hurricane Mitch, the last Category 5 hurricane to hit the mainland, which struck Virginia in 1998.

The employees' experience helped mold the storm strategies, company executives said.

By last Wednesday (Sept. 17), the day before landfall, Adelphia had done everything it could — tied things down, boarded windows and tested the Emergency Alert System, said spokeswoman Erica Stull.

"We're just waiting," she said at that time.

Adelphia has 500,000 subscribers in Virginia and North Carolina, and pre-storm estimates were that 80% would be affected by the storm, with potential power losses or property destruction.

Adelphia has 800 employees in the region as well, and at one point management considered letting employees who are coastal residents hunker down at a call center further inland. But before the storm, the area around the call center was also evacuated, she said.

Charter's Northeast division includes North Carolina, Virginia, New York and Pennsylvania — all in the track of the storm — Goldstein said. The systems include especially vulnerable ones in Kitty Hawk, N.C., and Chincoteague Island, Va.

Employees spent the week testing backup generators, boarding windows, setting up sandbags and moving data files to upper floors.

Systems inventoried hardware such as fiber-optic supplies, and asked vendors to be ready with replacements.

The first concern is for employees' safety. Cable systems developed notification trees, setting up a hierarchy as to which employee would notify colleagues about changes in work schedules or evacuation orders.

There's only so much you can do, though, executives said. It's impractical to try to affix guy wires or other supports to those big wind-catchers know as earth stations. Companies can only sandbag the legs heavily and hope for the best.

But before the storm even hit land, Goldstein had gotten word the company's Radio Island, N.C., earth station was already on the ground.

Kitty Hawk was among the first operations to lose power, and employees at the Suffolk, Va. call center were sent home Wednesday afternoon when meteorologists announced a tornado warning for their region.

Comcast's pre-storm checklist included fueling all vehicles, hooking up backup generators and rerouting calls to inland call centers.

"Of course, with no commercial power, they're not going to be watching cable TV. With no commercial power, they're not going to be making toast, either," Comcast spokeswoman Jenni Moyer said.

Comcast had plans in place to bring employees into the region after the storm to resume service as soon as possible.

Unsurprisingly, the big storm caused a spike in The Weather Channel's ratings. Its total-day rating of 0.9 on Wednesday, Sept. 17, was more than triple its average for the quarter. The peak viewing came the next day,

Sept. 18, as the net averaged a 1.4 rating. That's almost five times the number of viewers who watched The Weather Channel on average during the quarter.