Hurricanes Are no Match for Southeast Cooperative Principles

By Ashley Spinks, Communications Coordinator, NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association

October 16, 2018

A month after Hurricane Florence made landfall in the southeastern United States, several NTCA members are still attempting to recover. It’s a testament to their collaborative and supportive spirits that several companies throughout North and South Carolina have shared resources and equipment following the tragic storm. 

Flood waters from the Waccamaw River nearly cover the road sign leading into Brunswick County.

Star Communications (Clinton, N.C.), perhaps one of the hardest-hit NTCA members, showed resilience and quickly rebuilt following extensive damage to its offices and network—while also providing support to its neighbor company, ATMC (Shallotte, N.C.). According to an ATMC press release, the damage caused by the storm affected tens of thousands of people in the ATMC service area and left the cooperative with outages and other issues.

Luckily, NTCA members have a significant presence in the Southeast, and companies including Randolph Communications (Asheboro, N.C.), Skyline Membership Corp. (West Jefferson, N.C.), YadTel (Yadkinville, N.C.) and Horry Telephone Cooperative (HTC; Conway, S.C.) were reaching out to ATMC to offer assistance before the first rain drop fell, said Vice President of Marketing and Sales Jody Heustess. “Even before the storm, we had folks … reach out to us and say, ‘If you need something, you just reach out to us and we’ll be there, no questions asked,’” Heustess recounted.

Heustess described Florence as a “big, slow-moving storm” that made landfall about 25 miles north of the ATMC offices. “We had significant flooding that made travel close to impossible. We were cut off from the northern third of our service territory for several days, and we had a remote serving office that was close to underwater. … We basically had to rebuild that entire office in a two-day time period,” he said.

ATMC employee working to repair downed lines.

Hurricanes such as Florence are dangerous and disruptive not only because of the new damage they cause at landfall but because they also derail scheduled business at rural telcos and other establishments. Heustess said ATMC went into the week of the storm with a full docket of installations scheduled—55 to 60 a day—that all had to be postponed. “It’s not just about the damage, which is huge,” he said, “There’s also the work that you already have lined up that piles up.” Heustess said that help from neighboring cooperatives was crucial for addressing both problems—the immediate damage and the increased workload.

Immediately following Hurricane Florence, ATMC employees were working constantly—sleeping in their trucks and vans. When reinforcements arrived, techs from Randolph, Skyline and Yadtel “rode with [the ATMC] techs, and helped us to get our jobs finished sooner. Our employees had been going nonstop,” he said. This help allowed some of them to go home to be with family or repair damage on their own homes. HTC provided equipment to replace some that ATMC lost to flooding, and ATMC in turn was able to assist Star Communications, which Heustess said had far more extensive water damage. 

ATMC employee Kelwin Ferguson launches a boat used to access customers in the Pireway community.

“We worked with our electric power co-op to get a fiber link to provide [Star] with TV signals from the Wilmington market,” Heustess said. “We’ve got a good relationship with our local power co-op. … Local electricians came out in the middle of the hurricane.” Between local and cooperative efforts from across the state, ATMC and other NTCA member companies have more quickly recovered from Florence than they would have otherwise.

Heustess credited ATMC’s “good working relationship” with other cooperative telcos in the state as facilitating a quick and effective response to the storm. “The relationships that you build when you share information and share best practices at meetings and things” are important, he said. “We know these folks and we like them.”

ATMC technicians are joined by technicians from Randolph Communications, Skyline/SkyBest and Yadtel.

In preparation for Hurricanes Florence and Michael, NTCA activated its Disaster Relief Clearinghouse, which is still open to requests for or offers to share supplies.