It’s a little odd to think about ice storms in August, but the time to plan is beforehand, not during or afterward. Both preparation and recovery take time, lots of time.
The chilling ice storm that ripped through parts of Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky and Missouri in late January left an indelible, and painful mark on several rural communities and the cable systems that serve them.
The magnitude of the storm shook even the most seasoned small and independent cable operators in the region, historically a resilient and hearty bunch, as they rebuilt a devastated swath of cable plant and services.
Like a hurricane
"It was like a major hurricane," recalled Jim Gleason, president of New Wave Communications, a system serving parts of three states. "It’s the most severe storm I’ve ever seen and covered 35 percent our subscriber base, and more than 30,000 customers were affected. The pole loss was bigger than (Hurricane) Katrina. It was extremely devastating."
Once the storm subsided, trees fell, poles cracked in half, and 2-3 inches of ice blanketed roads and power lines, making access to much of the damaged plant nearly impossible.
"It took three days just to assess the damage," Gleason said. "Our main call center in Sikeston (MO) had no power for a week. That compounded our problems. It became very clear once we saw the number of power outages that it would be hard to recover from this storm."
New Wave, he added, used 125 contractors in three weeks and could have used 50 more. Backup power was also critical. "We had to make sure we could keep up with the utility crews, and having backup power was crucial."
For the smaller operators affected by the storm, however, recovery was their only option. And though it has taken two months to assess the damage and begin the rebuilding process, some operators—such as Kennieth Goodwin, the managing member and owner of smallish Fusion Media in rural northeast Arkansas—are actually feeling fortunate.
"We were in the process of upgrading the plant, so we had spools of cable and 15,000 feet of coax cable in storage we had purchased at half-price, with drop wire, too," Goodwin said. "We were pushing FTTH (fiber to the home) and going to a 100 percent digital headend. It has been delayed a few months, but we were lucky."
Lucky, and awestruck at the severity, yet raw beauty of the storm. "The second day of the storm, I looked outside, and the trees were coated with ice, and each blade of grass had an inch of ice on it, with light reflecting everywhere. It was an awesome sight," he recalled.
Once outside, however, reality hit. Hard.
"The second night, it all broke loose," he said. "I should have taken the storm more seriously. Ninety percent of our cable ended up on the ground."
Securing contractors and construction crews was a vital first step in rebuilding, Goodwin said. "We had local contractors, but I never once fathomed we would lose almost all the system to an ice storm. Now, I’ll look at more insurance coverage."
Larger operators such as Cox Communications of Arkansas and Kansas were better prepared, having as a key resource its corporate parent in Atlanta to draw from.
"We had the forecasts and geared up with crews, vehicles maintained, and staffing with 500 additional people," said Joe Williams, director of construction and engineering for Cox Communications of Arkansas and Kansas. "We talked to local contractors before the storm and pulled in generators from the Midwest division. The Cox home office was extremely helpful as well. The spirit of our employees was unbelievable, with many having no power in their homes. The enormity of the storm was shocking."
Yet no one could adequately prepare for a storm this size, even with plenty of disaster experience.
We respond to lots of storms, but ice storms are the trickiest," said Larry Stiffelman, senior sales manager for cable equipment provider CommScope. "We hold back 20 percent of equipment for emergencies, but this storm took much more than 20 percent."
CommScope, he said, was shipping cable nonstop for a month to the affected areas, and, ironically, water to Kentucky. "Strands and cable were the major needs, and wire. But installing was a problem. And there was no power. We delayed some existing orders to get cable to ice storm operators, and they rolled up their sleeves to rebuild plant in a very short time, right behind the utility trucks. I couldn’t believe how torn apart the Ozarks were. It was brutal."
Brutal, and still being felt by smaller operators, many of whom were light on insurance or had none at all.
"We’re working through the insurance coverage and one system at a time from the inside out to ensure the distribution system and drops are in place," said Ty Garrett, president of SEMO Communications, a family-owned business serving 18 communities in southeast Missouri. "We’re in recovery, and we got all our existing customers back in 30 days. But it will take six more months before we’re back to normal. I’ve never seen a storm that could do this kind of damage. It was a century-storm."
The recovery process, albeit tedious, remained a work in progress for a stretch. "We had 250 of our people who worked for weeks straight, and our customers were very understanding," Gleason said. "We hit the ground running."
For the small, independent cable operators hit hardest by the storm, the operative word was recovery. Said Garrett: "People can do just about anything when they have to."
— Craig Kuhl