Preparing for the storm

By David F. Carr Print this article 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.

Story Guide:

IT In Katrina's Wake

  • What was Left In Katrina's Wake
  • New Orleans had big IT plans—before Katrina
  • Preparing for the storm
  • Recovery: Some decisions that paid off
  • New Orleans CIO deals with political storms
  • VOIP, Web portals, geographic information systems all play a role in New Orleans' recovery

    Other Stories:

  • Mayor Ray Nagin promised to run the city like a business
  • How mobile computing and wireless networks sped post-Katrina housing inspections.
  • Video surveillance let authorities keep a close eye on this year's Mardi Gras
  • Calculating the cost of a solid disaster recovery plan
  • 4 tips for technology executives looking to expand their roles
  • Vendor Profile: Why New Orleans and others turn for Tropos Networks for their wireless networking needs.

    Next page: Recovery: Some decisions that paid off

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    This article was originally published on 2006-03-06
    David F. Carr David F. Carr is the Technology Editor for Baseline Magazine, a Ziff Davis publication focused on information technology and its management, with an emphasis on measurable, bottom-line results. He wrote two of Baseline's cover stories focused on the role of technology in disaster recovery, one focused on the response to the tsunami in Indonesia and another on the City of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.David has been the author or co-author of many Baseline Case Dissections on corporate technology successes and failures (such as the role of Kmart's inept supply chain implementation in its decline versus Wal-Mart or the successful use of technology to create new market opportunities for office furniture maker Herman Miller). He has also written about the FAA's halting attempts to modernize air traffic control, and in 2003 he traveled to Sierra Leone and Liberia to report on the role of technology in United Nations peacekeeping.David joined Baseline prior to the launch of the magazine in 2001 and helped define popular elements of the magazine such as Gotcha!, which offers cautionary tales about technology pitfalls and how to avoid them.
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