New Orleans CIO dealsBy 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. Herewith political storms ">
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."
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