In the storm and on the job

People

Hargray employees stay on the island to monitor local telecom network through Hurricane Matthew

Frank Boersma isn’t originally from the Lowcountry, but he’s no stranger to hurricane season. Far from it. The director of network engineering and planning for Hargray Communications hails from Michigan, has traveled the world as an officer in the U.S. Army, is a 20-year telecom veteran, and has four hurricanes under his belt. So when he volunteered to remain on Hilton Head Island as Hurricane Matthew gouged the East Coast, he had a good idea what he might encounter.

BOERSMA“Before coming to Hargray, I oversaw portions of networks in New Jersey and New York City during Hurricane Sandy, but Matthew was different,” Boersma said. “It was the first time in my life I’d ever seen rain go up. When South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley ordered evacuations, the company didn’t impose a requirement, but we stayed to make sure we were able to react quickly to any situations that could arise.”

Boersma was one of 15 employees who stayed on the island to monitor Hargray’s network, which provides internet, television and telephone services to residents and businesses in the Lowcountry. He and a handful of team members hunkered down at Hargray’s network operations center, while others were stationed at the headend, where all video content is received. The crew took shifts monitoring Hargray’s network and equipment, putting themselves in position to respond as quickly as possible.

“It’s the nature of our business, because we are a utility,” Hargray senior manager Melody Oliver said. “It’s very real to me that we’re providing phone and internet service, which are absolutely essential for people to communicate at a time like this.”

For Oliver, that meant evacuating her 13-year-old son to stay with her daughter in Columbia before joining Boersma and the rest of the team on the island. They boarded up windows and sandbagged doors, and they set up cots and picked up food and water. They watched their computer screens to the sound of hurricane winds and prepped for the work to come.

This skeleton crew was part of Hargray’s full preparation strategy, which was put in place well before the storm hit. The emergency measures included securing all of the company’s facilities in Beaufort County and surrounding areas, inspecting and refueling generators, performing a risk assessment of key elements of the network, and coordinating with various agencies including police, fire and medical response. Emergency vehicles and equipment were staged and ready to be deployed as needed after the storm.

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Hurricane Matthew hit in the early hours of Oct. 8 and was gone a short time later. By 10 a.m., Hargray’s team mobilized to assess and address the damage. Hargray’s core network remained online throughout the storm, and only one access node was impacted — it was completely inundated with water. The vast majority of the 43,500 customers who lost service did so because commercial power was out. As power was restored, Hargray services were available immediately for most customers.

In areas where power was out, Hargray deployed gas-fueled generators to restore services for high-priority needs, such as first responders and communities where a large number of people were impacted. Repair crews worked directly with local utility companies, clearing debris and fallen trees that had taken out power lines. Access proved challenging in many areas due to flooding and blocked roadways, and, in hard-hit remote areas like Daufuskie Island, boats were used to transport crews and equipment.

While repair efforts were the top priority for Hargray’s first-response teams, Lowcountry residents most appreciated the team’s presence in the community so soon after the. Team members passed out water on Oct. 8 and 9 and took time to talk to people who had stayed behind, lending helping hands when they could.

“It’s been quite refreshing,” Oliver said. “Any cable company, any telecommunications company, is usually the target of disdain when outages happen. The majority of what I heard from people in the community was that people were expecting to be out of service, but they were excited that their services were waiting for them.”

Boersma attributes the positive community response to Hargray’s ability to react quickly and in person. Meanwhile, many of Hargray’s 400 local employees worked remotely to help coordinate recovery efforts until offices re-opened.

“Because we’re local, we don’t store spare parts a long way away; we store them here,” Boersma said. “Other companies might have been affected longer than us because they’re bringing spare parts from hundreds of miles away. We’re the local guys.”

As of Oct. 20, services to all 43,500 customers impacted by the hurricane were fully restored, including Port Royal Plantation, where Hargray’s facility completely filled with water. For the 512 customers served by that facility, Hargray teams worked around the clock to remove and replace all equipment and components in the node, a project of that might have otherwise taken weeks.

“This is a time when having a local service provider makes such a difference,” said Hargray chairman and CEO Michael Gottdenker, who was part of the team surveying damage shortly after the hurricane. “I’m proud of the plan our team put together to be ready for this, the resiliency of the network infrastructure they’d prepared, and the seamless way our team executed — all while taking care of their own homes and families.”