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No simple task: rebuilding region’s tech infrastructure

When Hurricane Katrina barreled through Mississippi on August 29, 2005, the storm impacted 600,000 BellSouth customers in South Mississippi.

BellSouth and other technology providers have set records rebuilding tech infrastructure in the hardest hit areas, particularly the Gulf Coast counties and the Pine Belt area along the Interstate 59 corridor.

“We’ve restored service to all our customers who can take service at this time,” said BellSouth spokesperson Mike Walker. “We’ll continue to address special needs that customers have and will continue to work diligently with the local emergency operation groups to provide service to the temporary trailer sites. As the Coast rebuilds, BellSouth plans to rebuild its network to assure the communities will have the most advanced telecommunications infrastructure available.”

Walker said the cost of damage for BellSouth network restoration from the Category 4 storm could reach $600 million, including capital and expense.

“In early December, BellSouth announced the deployment of BellSouth Wireless Broadband Service in order to provide small businesses and consumers with an alternative high-speed Internet access solution as they rebuild,” he said. “The service offers businesses and consumers high-speed Internet access with downstream speeds up to 1.5 Mbps. With no phone line needed, the system transmits signals between local radio towers and a small non-line-of-sight modem that plugs into a desktop or laptop computer, or a local router.”

Arizona-based CableOne’s cable systems in Gulfport, Biloxi and Pascagoula suffered $30 million in extensive damage, with the storm pouring three feet of water into the Pascagoula headend, home to the system’s transmission gear. Of the company’s 178 area employees, one-third had destroyed or uninhabitable flooded homes.

CableOne CEO Tom Might spent three weeks on site, buying trailers, securing apartments or helping displaced associates in other ways by day, and sleeping on an inflatable mattress with his wife in the company’s office at night. He also distributed $500,000 from a relief fund to needy employees. In return, the crew worked seven days a week to restore service.

“It was amazing to see how they burned the candle at both ends,” said Might. “We offered to relocate employees to anywhere in 20 states we have service, but not a single person chose to do so. They wanted to make sure they had a job here, even though 21,000 of our 94,000 customers were gone. I assured them, yes, everyone had a job. We had a tremendous amount of work to do, and still do.”

Might opted to make expedient repairs rather than invest in higher tech equipment. “We used whatever equipment our other systems or vendors could ship to us,” he said. “It would have been nice to say let’s start all over, but we’d have customers today without service. However, we do need to come back and have our engineers revisit the condition and design of the entire Gulf Coast system.”

Cellular South’s 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.

Within a few days after the storm, Cingular Wireless was nearly 90% restored in the hardest hit areas in Mississippi, and about a week later, service was 96% restored. “Our towers are built to sustain hurricane force winds and none of our towers were lost,” said company spokesperson Dawn Benton.

“Only 4% of our sites had cell site equipment that had to be replaced and another small percentage had sustained some damage to the antennas, which are mounted on the towers. All repairs were completed in September.”

Tony Jeff, interim director of the Mississippi Technology Alliance, said the statewide association collaborated with its members to establish TechFix Disaster Recovery Program.

“A lot of different tech vendors got involved in post-Katrina activities,” he said. “We set up the program through our Web site, established an 800 number, and fielded calls at our office to get help for displaced companies.”

Will Longwitz, spokesperson for the Governor’s Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal, couldn’t relay any specific recommendations concerning technology from the volunteer group’s initial assessment report, which was handed to Gov. Haley Barbour on December 30. He said the governor plans to release the report in mid-January after reviewing it.

“Technology as an issue was not specifically assigned to any one group in the commission because they saw it as a thread that ran through most of the committees,” said Longwitz. “For instance, the health and human services committee looked at ways to better address the next disaster to better locate people who are in critical need. From the infrastructure committee’s standpoint, there were a lot of communications systems that need rethinking, revamping and rebuilding.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.


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