RecoveryBy David F. Carr 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: Some decisions that paid off">
As the most intense phase of the crisis passed, a much longer-term financial and human crisis began in the devastated and deserted city. More than 120,000 homes had been damaged in the flooding, and the city needed to determine which ones could be salvaged.
One project Meffert had initiated before Katrina that turned into a significant asset during the crisis was geo-coding the city's property database, using geographic information systems technology from ESRI, a prominent mapping software specialist.
The project was partly intended to digitize Federal Emergency Management Agency flood maps for the city, and determining a property's elevation in comparison with the official flood levels was a critical element of determining a homeowner's eligibility for federal help and for a permit to rebuild.
Given geographic coordinates for every property, building inspectors could use Global Positioning System coordinates to identify a home even if all street address markings had been washed away in the flood.
Meanwhile, as residents wanting to rebuild or repair their homes flooded City Hall with permit requests, the city's Web-based permitting system helped make the volume of requests more manageable becasue fewer people had to wait in line at City Hall.
The permitting software vendor, Accela, a government software specialist, also helped the city develop and deploy a system to help building inspectors do their work quicker (see "Mobile Network" sidebar, p. 40).
Luckily, given the city's cash-strapped position, vendors with whom Meffert had established close relationships before the storm, such as Tropos, Intel, Microsoft and Dell, stepped in with donations.
Banks of phones and computers appeared in the Hyatt ballroom, with big-screen projections of maps of the situation throughout the city displayed on the walls.
Some of the computers came from FEMA, Meffert says, but Dell donated laptops worth about $500,000; Tropos donated 50 wireless mesh networking units while Intel paid for another 50, for a total value of $1.25 million.
Microsoft helped by settling a $700,000 bill from the city's payroll processing vendor and gave New Orleans a loan for another $1.3 million. Cisco threw in a maintenance contract worth about $400,000.
Meffert barely had to ask for this largesse: "In a weird way, I didn't have to."
The vendors knew him, and they saw the opportunity "to do the right thing and help themselves in the same breath" by proving the value of their technology in a highly public setting, he says.
But the city couldn't make a comeback solely on the basis of donations. Shortly after the storm, Meffert got roped into writing an emergency funding request for Karl Rove, whom President Bush had appointed to oversee the disaster response from FEMA and other agencies.
Meffert estimated that restoring city services would cost about $771 million over the next year.
The city expected to run a deficit of $358.6 million because of vanished tax revenue and increased expenses. An additional estimated $412.6 million would be needed to restore city buildings and capital equipment.
In the section of the capital budget under citywide services for public safety, Meffert included $12.6 million for the surveillance camera network, $9.8 million for the city's Wi-Fi mesh network and $18.5 million for the police digital radio network.
In a mid-November meeting with a group of FEMA officials, Meffert found himself defending the wireless networking component of his proposal.
Essentially, the FEMA guys wanted to make sure they would be paying to replace something that had been lost, and not for an upgrade.
Meffert argued that his recommendation would actually be more practical than trying to restore wired phone and networking equipment that in many cases was obsolete.
"We have to put in what makes sense," he said. Most of all, he wanted to maximize the effectiveness of the employees who would remain, following layoffs.
"They have to do the work of three or four people now," Meffert said.
The FEMA people were polite, but made no promises.
A couple of weeks later, Meffert and Nagin announced plans to blanket the city with Wi-Fi and open up the network for free public access.
The public network will use the same hardware as the one for city workers, so it required little additional investment.
Police and city workers would get secured, priority access to the wireless network, but unsecured connections would be offered to anyone who wanted to take advantage of them.
In part, this was to be offered as an economic stimulus, a way for returning businesses and their employees to get online even if wired Internet services were unavailable at their homes or offices.
"This is one more sign that we are rebuilding New Orleans into something better, something bigger, something wireless," Nagin proclaimed at a Nov. 30 press conference.
To date, wireless service has been a lifesaver for people trying to do business in the city, leading to odd sights like crowds of laptop-toting young professionals encamped at the tables outside a coffee shop after hours, because the cafe's wireless connection had been left on.
While the municipal Wi-Fi network is being tasked with doing double duty for public Internet access, the city retains the ability to shut down public access and dedicate the network to emergency communications, according to Chris Drake, the city's project manager for wireless infrastructure.
Meanwhile, he says, because the network is being used for routine tasks rather than only in an emergency, "that's like having a test of your emergency communications system every day."
By early 2006, Meffert was trying a new tack with the wireless network, meeting with EarthLink, Yahoo and Google about the possibility of taking it over.
The "cool part" of what the city offers to vendors like these is that in a community where so much has been destroyed, there's little reason not to try new things, Meffert points out: "I don't have Internet at my house, and neither does the mayor."
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