Preparing for the stormBy 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. Here
The danger that a major hurricane could pose to New Orleans was well known.
In 2002, The Times-Picayune published an exposé called "Washing Away" that predicted most of what went wrong in 2005, including the widespread failure of communications systems, and questioned the integrity of the levees, built to withstand a Category 3 hurricane.
After grazing Florida, Hurricane Katrina strengthened to a Category 4 and then a Category 5 storm on Aug. 28, 2005.
Many residents had already left the city as a precaution, and Nagin's mandatory-evacuation order convinced more to leave.
By then, Meffert had downloaded critical systems, such as financial management, and shipped them to the ACS data center in California.
Having those systems outside the disaster zone later allowed Meffert to instruct the data center operator to run payroll at a time when city government was otherwise barely functioning.
Meanwhile, Domke arranged to move the Web site from servers running in City Hall to a Dallas data center operated by Red Carpet Host, which offered the suite of Windows technologies the Web site required.
Having designed his own content management and portal software paid off here, he says.
On the Saturday before the storm, he was able to quickly copy his files to Red Carpet's servers by Internet file transfer, without worrying about software licensing issues.
"I was thinking of it as something that was precautionary only, knowing that the city's power grid was tenuous and anything could knock it out," Domke says.
Some of the more sophisticated Web applications weren't working at that point—anyone who was trying to apply for a business permit online during the storm would have been disappointed—because the move separated them from the rest of the city's application infrastructure. But the basic Web presence would survive uninterrupted.
A week or so after the storm, help began to arrive. In addition to National Guard units and federal troops from units such as the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, emergency workers and freelance volunteers came with canoes and jet skis to help with the job of rescuing residents of the flooded areas from rooftops and isolated patches of high ground. Technical help arrived, too.
For instance, Minyard, the Unisys disaster recovery specialist—and a former Green Beret—came to New Orleans on his own initiative and helped establish the city's Emergency Operations Center.
Minyard turned up bearing a portable emergency communications unit originally designed for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey after the destruction of the World Trade Center towers; it contained everything needed to support multiple Internet, phone and wireless connections off a satellite link.
Called the Unisys Mobile CommHub, it packs everything, including a small satellite dish and a Cisco 3200 Mobile Access router, into a luggable crate.
"After hearing the pleas for help and knowing they had no communications, I was almost compelled to go," Minyard says.
But getting into the city at that time was a challenge in and of itself, and he made the last leg of the journey in a four-truck convoy with an armed escort.
"We literally drove in the middle of the night from Baton Rouge to New Orleans at about 100 miles per hour," he says.
"We went through a few checkpoints, and the basic question there was, 'Do you have enough ammunition?'"
The fear was that "the bad guys were better armed than the police, having broken into all the gun shops," he adds.
Meffert also got critical help from Port Authority of New York and New Jersey personnel, including information-technology people whom he calls "unsung heroes" for coming down on their own initiative, wanting to share what they had learned about disaster response after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"They gave us a lesson in Government Funding for Disaster Relief 101," he says.
With their advice, and technical support from Unisys, Meffert learned how to run an Emergency Operations Center sophisticated enough to coordinate the response to the immediate crisis, and how to begin the long, bureaucratic process of securing federal aid.
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