At Midnight, September 21, 1989, the most destructive hurricane ever to strike the U.S. hit South Carolina with its full fury. And while Southern Bell and its employees staggered, they never fell.
By many measures, it was Southern Bell’s finest hour. Despite more than $7 billion of damage to personal property and businesses statewide, most of Southern Bell’s telecommunications network remained in operation. Approximately 95 percent of the company’s customers in South Carolina never lost service.
People called emergency agencies, their neighbors and relatives during the height of the storm. One customer said he heard the freight train-like sound of Hugo’s winds through his parents’ telephone receiver in Charleston.
The superb performance of the company’s network was no accident. Southern Bell in South Carolina had recently completed a four-year, $750 million investment program that resulted in South Carolina having a “Network Second to None” in the nation. This network includes digital switching and some 48,000 miles of fiber optic cable. While buildings were demolished by Hugo, Southern Bell’s underground fiber optic cable remained in service, out of reach of the 138 mile-per-hour winds, falling trees, and swirling debris.
Nonetheless, Hugo caused Southern Bell major damage, knocking out service to some 50,000 of its one million South Carolina customers. In some areas, abnormally high calling volumes resulted in busy circuit conditions and delays in completing calls. Damage caused by Hurricane Hugo cost Southern Bell, which is self-insured, $50 million in South Carolina alone.
THE HOURS BEFORE
Many days before the storm hit South Carolina, Southern Bell employees had begun tracking Hugo’s course, and they anticipated its arrival. The company opened Emergency Operations Centers (EOCs) in Charleston, Columbia and Southern Bell headquarters in Atlanta.
Telephone connections between the EOCs were established over the company’s private network, the BellSouth Communications Network. Ham radio equipment was set up in the Columbia EOC to monitor transmissions from residents of the state’s coastal area. EOC personnel began making contacts to rush-ship supplies of cable, drop wire and poles.
Governor Carroll Campbell called for a mandatory evacuation of Charleston and the state’s barrier islands. Coastal area employees were briefed on post-storm assignments and reporting locations and were released from the job to care for their families and evacuate the area.
DURING THE STORM
At 10:00 p.m. on September 21, a core group of Southern Bell employees sat in a heavily fortified company location in downtown Charleston anxiously awaiting Hugo’s wrath. As the winds picked up around them, trees began to snap, power lines were yanked to the ground, electrical transformers exploded into fiery blue sparks and large metal roofs peeled off nearby buildings.
As the storm passed through Charleston, the winds shook the company building, which houses the Charleston EOC and the central switching office providing local and long distance connections.
Regardless of pre and post-disaster recovery planning, nothing could be done during the storm except to sit and wait it out.
AFTER THE STORM
As dawn began to light up the scene, South Carolinians were shocked at the destruction. Homes and businesses were destroyed or heavily damaged. Trees were down everywhere. Commercial power was out for over one-third of the state. Weeks would pass before power was fully restored to many coastal areas.
Immediately, Southern Bell began the challenging job of climbing through the wreckage to assess damages to its facilities.
Damage reports showed 2.3 million feet of cable lying on the ground, 4300 downed drop wires, 1685 downed poles, 32 central switching offices on emergency power, 10 central offices on batteries, 555 digital loop carriers on batteries and 10 sites washed away completely.
In the meantime, the Atlanta EOC began locating crews of technicians that could be borrowed from the other eight southeastern states served by Southern Bell’s parent company, BellSouth. Two hundred additional employees were needed to trim trees, repair cable and fuel and maintain the generators used to power the digital loop carriers.
The Columbia and Charleston EOCs began making living arrangements for the incoming forces. The company supplied generators to two motels to house the additional employees. A Columbia catering firm was hired to prepare and deliver meals for employees for a two week period while power was being restored to grocery stores and restaurants.
Additional safety personnel were sent to the coastal area to review safety procedures with employees. Despite the extra employees and 12 to 18 hour work days, no serious injuries were incurred during the restoration work.
Immediately after the storm, the EOCs began locating and sending additional work equipment, such as chain saws, lanterns, batteries, and rain suits, to the coastal and eastern regions of the state most affected by the storm. Batteries of telephones were installed for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and for the National Red Cross center hurriedly set up in Orangeburg. Trailers with coin telephones were set up at various locations for use by residents whose service could not be immediately restored.
While most of the major network trucking and distribution facilities were repaired and placed back into service within days of Hugo, Southern Bell continued work on Hugo-related repairs for nearly a full year after the storm. Cable damaged by less noticeable wind cracks and stress became faulty over time. Also, the tidal surge submerged telephone wiring and other facilities at customers’ homes and businesses causing corrosion and eventually interfering with service.
Ironically, more damage was done to cables and facilities by contractors doing restoration and repair work. During the past year, the level of construction has been high in Southern Bell’s Hugo-affected areas, and there has been a great demand placed on the company and its employees to rewire homes and businesses and run drop wires to provide new service.
LESSONS LEARNED, CHANGES MADE
All in all, Southern Bell employees and the fiber optic, digital telecommunications network they created stood up to Hugo’s test admirably. Emergency agencies, government officials and major business customers found their voice and data links to be intact during and after the storm. Particularly, underground fiber optic cable kept the phones ringing when an above-ground, copper cable network would have failed.
Perhaps the biggest problem not recognized at the time of the disaster was the widespread loss of commercial power for such a long period of time. Many more generators were needed and have now been procured to provide power to certain components of the company’s telecommunications network.
Southern Bell is installing ham radio equipment at its EOCs to provide an alternate means of communications, and the Columbia EOC has recently been equipped with a National Weather Service satellite dish and equipment to better monitor weather conditions.
The Hugo experience also pointed to an underlying principle of disaster recovery: everything possible must be done to free up employees in the affected area so they can do their jobs of repairing damage incurred by the disaster. In the event of future disasters, staff support personnel will be sent to the affected areas more quickly to coordinate travel, motels and food and to receive and track delivery of materials.
THE STATE GOVERNMENT EMERGENCY PREPAREDNESS NETWORK
While many lines of communication remained open during Hugo, South Carolina State Government realized improvements needed to be made to emergency communications between state and local agencies throughout the state. With the leadership of Governor Campbell, utilities, government and telecommunications companies, including Southern Bell, formed a partnership to create a statewide fiber optic telecommunications network to be used during a disaster. It is a private Electronic Tandem Network that links all of the state’s 46 county emergency centers. The network is activated upon the command of state government and operates free of public telephone traffic.
Perhaps the most important feature of the Emergency Preparedness Network is its ability to re-route traffic around facilities that may be out of service. The network forms a “ring” around the state, giving state and local government many alternate voice and data transmission pathways to better keep open the lines of communication.
Hurricane Hugo was the toughest test that nature has ever given Southern Bell and its people. Thanks to the technical superiority of its network, the dedication of its employees, and a workable, thorough disaster plan, the company came through for its customers.
Today, an even better plan exists, as well as a better network with more fiber optic and digital technology, and an improved capability to provide the one service that is most critical during a disaster--communications.
Ted Creech is Public Relations Manager for Southern Bell, coordinating public and employee information for the company in South Carolina. He spent two weeks in Charleston just after Hurricane Huge struck on September 21, 1989.
This article adapted from Vol. 3, No. 4, p. 30.