Initial tower infrastructure damage assessment has Ike surpassing Katrina's devastation
September 17, 2008 - Wireless and wireline carriers studied their Hurricane Gustav handbook to prepare for Hurricane Ike. And it worked. They were better-prepared to begin assessing damage and restoring service with significant resources. That's the good news.
The bad news is that the early on site reconnaissance in Texas and Louisiana is now showing a greater number of cell sites in need of repair, a number that far exceeds the shocking post Katrina count.
Numerous contractors have said that the damage that they are seeing is widespread, especially in areas within 100 miles of the Gulf Coast.
However, Ike's punishing path continued throughout the U.S. leaving its mark on many communications structures - from felling a TV tower onto the greens at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, KY to toppling a cell tower in Pataskala, OH.
"We're finding that almost 80% of the approximately 285 towers we have inspected so far have considerable damage to them or are down due to power or other issues such as site egress," said Bruce Budagher, Vice President of Data Cell Systems of Winnsboro, LA.
"There are issues from the site being under water, whole sectors being blown off, single antennas and coax dangerously dangling in the air, entire structures stripped clean and even several towers that have collapsed," he said.
No comparison to Katrina in scope
Katrina has been identified as causing the most wide-spread communications disruption during a natural disaster in the U.S., but even though there is more telecom damage from Ike, current service is considerably better since only a number of the hundreds of the telephone companies' central offices were shut down by flooding and power loss in the affected area.
Also, thousands of generators have been moved in to power facilities and recharge batteries, and trucks have been deployed to refuel generators. More generators are en route from other locations across the country as well as Cells On Wheels to supplement downed cell sites.
In addition, sites that were under water during the past three days have drained considerably. During Katrina when levees broke, a significant number of towers remained inaccessible for weeks on end.
Carriers are stating that the majority of their sites in the impacted areas are operational, but the number of cell sites that were exposed to the storm's 500-mile path are considerably higher than those serving Louisiana and Mississippi when Katrina barreled through in 2005.
One Texas hurricane ravaged city, Houston, has a population equal to more than half of Louisiana's 4.4 million residents.
Operational status questioned
A North Carolina contractor deployed to Texas says the carriers' "operational" is a safe harbor term for "putting lipstick on antenna pigtails".
"They might be operational, but they're not providing service. I'm willing to bet that more than 75% of the sectors are misaligned and you're not going see any decent restoration of service until they're fixed," he said.
Tower contractors are also reviewing their Katrina playbooks to provide better service to the carriers and ensure the safety of their workers.
"Our management team assembled in our Conroy office shortly after Ike appeared to be a threat to Texas and we began worst-case scenario plans," said Budagher.
Fuel was a major concern and Data Cell Communications contracted with bulk distributors to bring in 1,000 gallons at a time to their company facilities.
"It's helped tremendously. Our customers appreciate our ability to dispatch our trucks immediately to their affected sites. Our carrier contracts are based upon time and materials and they're not fond of having to pay a crew that should be en route as they sit in a gas line," he said.
Erin Braziel, director of Data Cell's Houston market, said he has approximately 85 workers in the field that are working at least 14 hours each day on T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint Nextel restoration projects.
AT&T to begin site assessments
Gritz Towers, Inc. of Goliad was awaiting AT&T Wireless assignments this afternoon to survey the company's tower sites for damage.
"AT&T has primarily been using our seven crews to support the unloading and delivery of generators," said co-owner Destry Gruetzmacher.
The wireless carrier has assembled many dozens of crews at the Pasadena Fairgrounds north of hard hit Galveston. To date, there have been over 700 generators delivered to sites, Gruetzmacher said.
A veteran of Katrina restoration, Gruetzmacher said that carrier organization and accommodations for workers are considerably better this time. He said his firm has had numerous work requests from all sectors of the industry, including the installation of a 600 foot tower that collapsed near San Leon.
Three tower owners appear to have dodged the storm
Although some areas are still inaccessible, three major tower owners appear to have weathered Ike, reporting that most of their damage was to fences and other compound equipment.
American Tower Corporation had crews assessing their sites since early Monday morning and found that none of their structures had failed.
Terry Armant, Senior Vice President - Development for Global Tower Partners was pleased that the majority of his company's towers had been inspected and none have any apparent structural damage.
According to a spokesperson from SBA, they too are not aware of any failed structures, but are continuing to investigate their Texas and Louisiana inventory of towers.
Crown Castle International is currently in the process of assessing site damage.
Suppliers are assessing damage following Ike's peak
Texas is home to many telecom manufacturers and suppliers that were in the eye of the hurricane.
Although Houston-based TWR Lighting, Inc. survived with minimal damage of a number of roof leaks and awning damage, they were fortunate to receive full electrical service and water on Tuesday, but according to AT&T, they will be without hard-line services until next week and are asking their customers to contact them through email or call their cell phones.
"The nature of the storm's aftermath is a combination of surreal and mind-numbing, yet communities and neighborhoods are pulling together in every way imaginable while legions of linemen and tree service workers tackle the largest electrical disruption in the state's history, maybe even this country's," said TWR Lighting, Inc. President Ken Meador.
As Ike headed north the tropical storm teamed up with the remnants of Tropical Depression Lowell and provided Chicago with the worst rain it has seen in 137 years.
Up to 13 inches of rain fell over the weekend flooding the road in front of PRIMUS Electronics Corp. Although their offices and distribution warehousing did not receive any damage, the business remained closed until yesterday afternoon until the water receded.
Although the industry didn't welcome the wrath of Hurricane Ike, it has become a bittersweet enjoyment for many tower service companies that have been hit by a slowdown in the last quarter, forcing them to lay off some workers.
If you have any photographs of Ike's damage to a communications structure, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org along with a brief description and location of the damaged tower.