By David F. Carr  |  Posted 2006-08-28

The people who suffered through Hurricane Katrina are hoping against hope that their rebuilding efforts won't be tested by another storm in 2006.

The New Orleans region feels "like a gash, with a thin scab over it," says David Graser, chief information officer of West Jefferson Medical Center.

His hospital, 10 miles outside New Orleans, was still shoring up backup systems and other emergency preparations last month, nearly a year after the storm hit in late August 2005. Although West Jefferson was spared flooding and other severe damage, it had to operate without electric power and with little outside assistance for more than two weeks—much longer than the two days its emergency plans had called for.

Repairs to levees and other storm protection systems in the area are still only partly complete, and neighborhoods throughout New Orleans that flooded in the storm are in an uneven state of repair and repopulation; some blocks have even been abandoned.

"Everyone is just kind of holding their breath," says Greg Meffert, who served as the city of New Orleans' chief technology officer until his resignation in July to return to the private sector (see New Orleans CTO Ships Out). "If we can get through one hurricane season, by the time next year rolls around, the city is just going to be a much stronger place."

Meffert, a former software entrepreneur who came to work for the city after the election of Mayor Ray Nagin in 2002, says he still wants to help with the city's recovery—but as a private citizen, rather than from within a city bureaucracy he always found frustrating.

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He rode out Katrina in a storm-blasted Hyatt Hotel, where he and his staff improvised the restoration of basic communications services to help coordinate recovery efforts. With voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) gear looted from an Office Depot, they got on the phone to the White House (see Picking Up the Pieces).

In the months after Katrina, Meffert touted a wireless computer network built with donated equipment as a tool for restoring city operations when phone and Internet service was still spotty. But ultimately, Meffert decided that a more practical route was to have a private company take responsibility for the wireless network, and in May the city announced an agreement with EarthLink, which will offer free Internet wireless access and also sell high-speed connections.

"It's an example of the city coming back and being better than where it started," Meffert says.

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For Graser, Katrina showed that West Jefferson Medical Center had to be prepared to be as self-sufficient as possible, for as long as possible. What he anticipated might be a 48-hour crisis turned into a 17-day one, during which the hospital had no access to its normal operational computer systems.

One problem was that the staff was out of practice doing business in a manual, paper-based mode. For example, sorting out the status of patients who had been transferred or discharged became a problem after the crisis, Graser says. Since then, the hospital has developed a completely manual system for tracking patients, as well as for disseminating test results.

During Katrina, West Jefferson's phone service was also interrupted. Because the hospital's backup generator wasn't powerful enough to run the building's air conditioning, the phone switching equipment overheated and wouldn't function.

The hospital addressed these shortcomings with a more powerful generator capable of keeping the entire hospital running, including elevators, air conditioners, and computer and phone systems, according to Graser. He has replaced the old phone system with VoIP equipment that, in addition to being more modern, is lighter and more practical to relocate if part of the building is damaged.

Graser also wants to move the hospital's computer room from the first floor to the fifth, as a defense against flooding, but construction is taking longer than he had expected. Overall, he says, "I believe we've done everything humanly possible, everything that was within our purview, to be better prepared."