What was left InBy David F. Carr | Posted 2006-03-06 Print
City officials saw disaster preparedness as a job for another day. Then Katrina struck. In the six months since the hurricane blew apart the city, New Orleans officials have been improvising a plan to put its information infrastructure back together. HereKatrina's wake">
On that Tuesday morning, Meffert's destination was an Office Depot at the corner of St. Charles Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard.
That happened to be a location where one of the wireless surveillance cameras Meffert's technology team had previously deployed as part of a crime-fighting initiative hung from a light pole. But when he arrived at the Office Depot in the Humvee, accompanied by Domke and Police Chief Eddie Compass, Meffert was ready for some larceny of his own.
"It had already been looted by the time we got there," Meffert remembers.
Goodies like digital music players were long gone, he says, "but they didn't take the geeky router stuff."
And that was what he was after—a way of turning a single Internet connection into multiple VOIP (voice over Internet protocol) phone lines.
Another of the raiders, Domke, had brought his own shopping list to Office Depot.
The night before, Domke had preserved the Web site as a channel for crisis communications.
In the early hours of the storm, Domke was able to post updates to the Web site with a Verizon Broadband networking card, using a cellular Internet connection to reach the city's relocated Web server in Dallas.
But before dawn Monday morning, the storm knocked down too many cell phone towers and the connection went dead.
But Domke had another resource at his disposal. He had bought a Vonage phone about a week before, intending to use it at home.
Vonage provides a VOIP service aimed at consumers who want to make cheaper long distance calls over a high-speed phone or cable Internet connection.
The phone itself was sitting in the back of his car on a waterlogged city street, but he had gotten as far as establishing an account.
Quizzing the hotel staff, Domke learned that there actually was still some telecommunications service to the building, even though the hotel's internal phone system was offline.
Purely by chance, the mayor's staff had camped out in a conference room just down the hall from a telecommunications wiring closet, which was getting power from a generator.
So, Domke was able to get an Internet connection by plugging into a network switch in that closet and snaking an Ethernet cable down the hall.
Domke didn't have the Vonage SoftPhone software required to make calls from his laptop, and what he really wanted anyway was a way to make and receive calls over regular phone handsets.
Even later, however, after the Hyatt restored partial phone service, the hotel system wasn't really appropriate for this emergency because calls had to be manually connected through a switchboard.
When the city was trying to connect with the White House, for example, it needed to be able to give out a direct dial number where officials could return the call.
A quick tour of the Vonage Web site showed that what he really needed was one of the Vonage routers made by Linksys, which has an Internet connection on one end and standard analog phone plugs on the other.
The order-online option was no good—FedEx wasn't exactly making regular deliveries to New Orleans—but the Web site also let him look up the nearest reseller, which led to the raid on Office Depot.
"The way the water was rising, we thought we might not get another chance," Domke says.
He, Meffert and Compass reached the Office Depot at sunset and entered the store in the dark. Compass provided cover, chasing away looters who tried to re-enter the store.
Domke went shopping for the Vonage equipment he needed, while Meffert rounded up other supplies. They also discovered a Cisco router in the back room that they thought they could use.
For lack of a screwdriver, they tried to use butter knives to remove it from the server rack. When that failed, Compass simply ripped it out of the wall.
The router was later used to restore e-mail service at City Hall, providing another way for officials to rebuild communications.
When they returned with the loot, Domke built a small network from the routers that allowed the mayor's staff to make their first outbound call just after midnight.
Following another raid on Radio Shack to round up more analog phones (those in the hotel were digital), he and other members of Meffert's IT team eventually got eight phones working off the single Internet connection.
As a result, city leaders stepped up their calls for help, and Wednesday night President Bush called back while returning from his Texas ranch.
That's when Nagin got on the line and "told him we had an incredible crisis here and that his flying over in Air Force One does not do it justice."
For Meffert, Domke and others who'd begged, borrowed or stolen basic supplies in order to connect with the outside world—and seen the crisis firsthand—help couldn't come soon enough.
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