Whitacre Awards: 3 brutal hurricanes no match for 2018 Whitacre winners
A brick wall ripped off by fierce winds, exposing network equipment. Cell towers flooded or flattened.
And hundreds of survivors – some crying – lined up to connect with friends and family.
These are the types of high-pressure, high-stakes situations handled by our 2018 Whitacre Award winners. And they often did it in blinding rain or without a real bed in which to sleep.
The 14 winners were celebrated Thursday for their post-hurricane heroism at the all-employee town hall.
"It's an honor. It's humbling and not expected," winner Josh Swindell said.
But Josh said the main reason he works one disaster after another is the public response.
After Hurricane Michael, "I would walk into a store and people would hand me $20, and say, 'Let me buy you dinner,'" said Josh, adding that he declined these offers.
"Or someone would say: Can I use your phone? And I'd hear him say, 'Hey, Dad, I'm OK.' That's the really rewarding part," Josh said. "That's the heart of the mission."
Here's how the 14 Whitacre Award winners responded after 3 brutal hurricanes:
Service at the Brunswick County Government Center in North Carolina was down after Hurricane Florence hit in mid-September. That meant first responders who had gathered from around the country couldn't communicate.
Carl Smith, wireless technician, made it to the cell site by dusk. "The wind was blowing the rain sideways - just pouring buckets. The hurricane kind of parked over on top of us and just rotated and rotated. It was the worst I've seen," he said.
Carl replaced the mobile, wireless router, but rain was too intense to keep working.
He slept in his truck. The next morning, he used his phone's radar app to work during short breaks in the rain. Carl also used a giant plastic trash bag, wrapping it around himself, the network equipment and his computer.
Carl planned to tell the first responders that their service was restored – but when he arrived, they already knew it."I really honestly say I was just doing my job. And I'll never go anywhere without contractors bags."
Carl was able to leave the site with the help of a high-water vehicle.
Meanwhile, Eric Herndon, cell technician, was doinghis best to reach an out-of-service cell site on a 6-foot-high platform in Society Hill, South Carolina. For several days, the flood water topped 10 feet. When the murky water receded to 3 feet, Eric put on his waders and safety gear and trudged out to the site. He even replaced the damaged equipment that was the responsibility of another group.
Property manager John Lewis spent the first 24 hours of the hurricane in the central office in Wilmington, North Carolina. John then headed to the Southport central office, where he discovered 2 ½ feet of water had filled the parking lot. "I took off my socks and shoes and treaded right in," John said.
When he discovered water creeping into the central office itself, John alerted the Wilmington team. They arrived just as flooded roads closed behind them. But with only 2 sump pumps, "we were just pushing water around. We were not making any progress. The water would just go right around the building and come right back in," John said.
When they got the right equipment, the situation turned around. By the end of the second day, John and team were evacuated by a fishing boat. The network equipment was safe – and dry.
While some residents were evacuating Panama City in preparation for Hurricane Michael in October, the Southeast Disaster First Strike Team headed into the Florida beach town.
The team is made up of Josh Swindell, Jarrod Walker and Brian Evans, managers-Construction & Engineering; Josh Sifford and Chris Hudson, senior specialists–equipment design engineers. Joining them was Doug Hewlett, area manager for the digital and electronics group.
When Michael's winds hit 150 mph, the group was in the central office. "I've never experienced winds like this. They were breathtaking. And pure hell," Josh said.
Then they heard a loud crash on the fourth floor. The wind ripped open a 10-foot by 30-foot-wide hole in the brick wall. "Those guys took maybe a deep breath, looked around and did what needed to be done," Doug said.
The group used tarps and moved cabinets to help block the wind and rain from critical network equipment. They also used boards to push water out the new hole. All this helped preserve service to the Panama City area.
This meant that when the devastated community turned to retail store manager Sean Vega, he could actually help. During those first days, the lines outside Panama City store often climbed to about 700 people.
"Once we started getting our flow going, we had tents set up and water coolers out there," Sean said. "Police were very helpful. They were there to help us manage.
"People were very patient. They would wait for hours. People with literally nothing, and they were very appreciative."
And for weeks, Sean managed an influx of inventory and AT&T employees from other areas who are volunteering in the store. He served hundreds of first responders and thousands of customers, some in tears. "But you can't really stop then. It hits you later, when you go home."
Overall, Sean said, the experience has given him a "sense of service."
Hurricane Maria pummeled Puerto Rico in September 2017, destroying the power grid and knocking out communications on the island.
Francisco J. Fernandez-Delgado, area manager-Network Services, was the lead on all field personnel assigned to cell service restoration. He worked week after week, without a day off, directing service restoration efforts.
Henry Galan, area manager – Network Engineering, works in Florida, but volunteered to work in Puerto Rico. He created a new structure to manage the power restoration work, including a massive generator refueling effort. Hector Damudt-Gonzalez, area manager – Network Design,created a new microwave core network and oversaw construction of a new fiber ring. Digital tech Antonio Benitez-Lugo lost his home in the hurricane but was instrumental in helping the microwave response groups from California.
The Puerto Rico network was completely restored about a year after the hurricane struck.
"We knew that communication was critical, but after this, we know that we need to consider this as important as other utilities, like power and water. Because the power of communication connects everybody," said Victor Vera, Puerto Rico's Radio Access Network director.