New Orleans CIO deals

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

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On the morning of Jan. 5, as a City Council meeting is about to start, Meffert enters the council chambers carrying a pink can of Tab and wearing a beleaguered expression.

Outside, a group of protesters are reacting furiously to news reports quoting Meffert, in his deputy mayor role, saying the city plans to raze 2,500 homes whether the owners like it or not.

On the way inside, he accepts the praise of a local lawyer who has found the property-damage database on the Web an invaluable research tool.

Unfortunately, no Web site anywhere contains all the answers to the questions New Orleans residents are asking about the future.

In the coming election (postponed from February to April because of the logistics of reaching evacuated voters with absentee ballots), Nagin could easily be thrown out of office because of frustrations over the pace of the city's recovery.

Meffert was called here to discuss electrical inspections. But it turns out that City Council President Oliver Thomas is just back from visiting with the protesters, and their concerns are foremost in his mind.

When called to testify, Meffert gets thoroughly grilled. But he says the city is only trying to force the issue on about 120 homes that are particularly dangerous.

Most of what people are protesting is based on a misunderstanding, he insists: "Emotion without information breeds fear."

Meffert leaves the council meeting muttering, "That private sector is looking pretty good about now."

In a phone call a week later, Meffert is more philosophical.

"You know, this whole deputy mayor thing is sort of the CIO's dream and the CIO's nightmare at the same time," he says.

Other municipal CIOs complain to him that they can't get things done the way he can because of the opposition of other department heads.

In Meffert's case, a lot of the key department heads report to him. He doesn't have to worry about getting the utilities department to let him hang wireless equipment on the streetlights, for example.

On the other hand, he is in a "tight political spot," he admits.

"This is a hard, hard, hard place to work right now."

Meanwhile, as a technologist, he sees opportunities. At a time when so much needs to be rebuilt, why not make the systems integrated? Why not consolidate?

"All the things everyone says you ought to do, we're going to do," Meffert insists.

The experience of surviving Katrina also taught him a few things. "Everyone else who pitches the disaster recovery thing, that's all theory to them," Meffert says.

That's why the best assistance he got during the Katrina crisis came from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey personnel, who came to New Orleans to share what they'd learned from their own catastrophe.

As Meffert vows: "I will return the favor that those guys did for me to the next city that has a major disaster."

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: VOIP, Web portals, geographic information systems all play a role in New Orleans' recovery

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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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