Thirty-seven years ago, Suzy Hays arrived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast during a period of intense turmoil. Her family had relocated from Baltimore to Biloxi two weeks after Hurricane Camille surged from the Gulf of Mexico on the night of August 17, 1969. Her dad had been stationed at Keesler Air Force Base, waiting his turn to go to Vietnam.
So when Hurricane Katrina slammed onshore August 29, she thought she was fully prepared. And as Cellular South leader Hu Meena’s right-hand person, she was right on target. The network, which never universally lost service during or after the storm, even in some of the hardest hit areas, was fully operational by September 9, less than two weeks following the storm.
“Before the storm hit, our company had a plan in place to respond to disaster, including our technical team preparing our network with strategically placed generators and placing tower crews on standby,” explained Hays. “Our plan also included securing retail relief teams from other areas who would come in following the storm to help man our stores and begin distributing what would be over 1,000 phones to disaster relief agencies, public service agencies and Red Cross shelters. Our prior experience with disasters was invaluable. We had restored cellular service after the ice storms in the Mississippi Delta and had been through Hurricanes Georges and Ivan. So when we learned a category 5 hurricane was coming, we were prepared.”
At Cellular South’s corporate offices in Jackson, two war rooms were set up. One war room served as a command center for tower restoration. The other, which Hays co-manned with the company’s director of retail, served as a logistics center to deliver supplies to the technical staging center and retail employees, to open stores and to deliver phones, chargers and batteries to people on the ground.
Hays and associates made certain that Cellular South stores would be the first to open in the hardest hit areas, with some opening within three days of the storm. Where stores were too severely damaged, tents with generators were set up.
“It was an amazing experience to be a part of Cellular South during those two weeks,” said Hays. “Our technicians worked around the clock and even slept in their trucks at one point. Many left their families, including those with destroyed homes. Given past disasters, they knew how critical communications could be and that our community was counting on them.”
At home, Hays was dealing with another devastating aspect of Hurricane Katrina. “I’ll never forget the night my sister and her husband came back from their first trip to Biloxi with photos of their home, which the Bay had completely washed through, leaving only the roof and the frame. The reality that they lost everything they owned would come later,” she said.
Like many homes in the Jackson area, Hays’ had no electricity for more than a week. Because it was too hot for anyone to sleep on the second floor, eight family members, including her husband and two daughters, slept on air mattresses in the den, where two dogs also stayed. “I looked around … and we looked pretty pathetic,” she said. “My then two-year-old lay sleeping in her diaper, covered with sweat. My air mattress had begun losing air. But we were all safe, and that’s all that mattered.”
Hays, who earned an undergraduate degree from Mississippi College and an MBA from Ole Miss, was also concerned about the damage to New Orleans, where she had interned during college for an advertising agency. She was also worried about the many small business owners she had assisted while working for the Small Business Development Center in Oxford. Most importantly, she was fearful of the well being of the Cellular South family.
“The most stressful part was locating our employees,” said Hays. “We were very thankful when we finally found that they were all safe, although many had lost everything.”
In the post-recovery phase of Hurricane Katrina, Hays will continue her role as head of sales, marketing and customer operations for Cellular South by making sure every customer thinks, “Wow, I can’t remember the last time I had service like that.”
“That’s my job in a nutshell, to make sure that happens with every customer, every time,” she said.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.