IT staff battle to cope after Katrina knocks out systems at agencies fighting the crisis


IT staff battle to cope after Katrina knocks out systems at agencies fighting the crisis

Lindsay Clark

As political rows over the inadequate emergency response to Hurricane Katrina grow and the humanitarian effort continues, businesses in the US states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida are counting the cost of the most devastating natural disaster to hit North America since the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

With thousands estimated dead and hundreds of thousands displaced, ensuring business continuity proved difficult for some organisations charged with alleviating the crisis.

The US Coast Guard, which handles search and rescue efforts on the Gulf Coast, for example, lost much of its IT in the region during the catastrophic period.

The storm knocked out the Coast Guard's computer networks along the Gulf Coast and as far away as Houston and New Mexico, so personnel in those areas were without access to e-mail, internet and classified data networks.

A week after the hurricane, the Coast Guard was struggling to get its systems back online.

Federal agencies and telecommunications companies deployed mobile and satellite communications vans to affected areas to fill gaps in commercial, federal and public safety systems.

The Defense Department and Coast Guard also dispatched communications vans equipped with a wide range of satellite and land mobile communications systems to provide connectivity for command centres supporting disaster relief efforts.

Meanwhile IT professionals in the stricken business community have struggled to balance professional duties with looking after themselves and their families. Local news sources reported the concerns and frustrations of IT managers transferred to back-up sites far away from the disaster, and their families.

The disaster has cruelly exposed some organisations' business continuity plans. One company sent its IT team to a back-up centre in Dallas only to find a tape archiving service partner in Louisiana had been flooded without sending back-up data ahead of the storm.

Other organisations are realising that the standard six weeks' support that most business continuity suppliers offer in a time of disaster may run out before they have any prospect of returning to their home base.

Research firm Gartner has estimated that about 40% of Fortune 1,000 companies - the largest businesses in the US - are not prepared for a regional disaster on the scale of Hurricane Katrina. Small and medium-sized companies are even less well prepared.

Data is the key as companies switch facilities

Sungard, a supplier of business continuity services to IT departments, said that 109 Gulf Coast companies warned they may need its services and 19 companies invoked their disaster recovery plans.

IBM, another major business continuity provider, would not release figures but it is understood that dozens of its customers in the affected area switched to back-up facilities as far afield as Boulder, Colorado.

David Palermo, vice-president of marketing at Sungard, said businesses looking to learn from the disaster could distinguish between disaster recovery and information availability. With disaster recovery, customers back up their business data and load it on to a service provider's systems once they have moved out of the affected areas. With information availability, a customer would run its own servers within a service provider's failover facility - continually uploading data. This allows employees to move into the service provider's facility without business being offline.

One New Orleans bank had successfully used this model with Sungard during the Katrina crisis, Palermo said. "The real difference is that the customer controls the data throughout. When you are in a traumatic time and employees are naturally more concerned about family and personal property in peril, the added task of having to load backed-up business data onto new systems is not welcome. Our information availability customers did not have to do that - they were up and running once they had workers at the new site."

With the increased threat of terrorism, combined with catastrophic natural disasters, IT leaders will be looking to learn the lessons, so that continuity ensures data availability in even the most extreme crisis.

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