Lessons learned by leaders make New Orleans safe post Katrina

August 27 2010 | Latest News
IT disaster recovery continues in New Orleans, five years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina

Much was learned from the ordeal, and IT continues to help bring about needed changes and improvements

By Todd R. Weiss ERP Blogger

NEW ORLEANS -- Five years ago this week, I was in my home office outside Lancaster, Pa., where I worked as a staff writer for Computerworld.com, writing story after story about how Hurricane Katrina was literally pounding the city of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, leaving massive destruction and loss of life in its horrific wake.

Over the next several weeks, I talked by telephone with representatives of companies that had business operations in New Orleans and shared their stories about how their IT workers were literally working in the face of danger to save critical business data and preserve their IT systems until normal operations could at some point be resumed. Their real-life stories of storm damage, infrastructure failures and creative ideas to solve their resulting IT problems were often truly inspiring.

Now, five years after that Category 3 hurricane tossed the New Orleans metro area onto its head and caused massive flooding, more than1,800 deaths and incredible hardships for hundreds of thousands of residents, what's often described here as a "new sense of normalcy" continues to bloom in this famous old Mississippi River town. Of course, all of that has been recently underscored by the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which continues to cause its own problems for New Orleans and communities throughout the Gulf coast.

By coincidence, I'm here in New Orleans this week for a music entertainment conference where I am serving as a panelist. Believe it or not, I'm staying in the Sheraton Hotel on Canal Street in the city's French Quarter, which is one of the same hotels that I reported on back in my original Katrina stories back in 2005.

Back then, I could only talk by phone to the IT folks on the ground in the city or to their leaders in corporate headquarters in other parts of the nation to learn about conditions here after the storm. But yesterday I was able to truly hit the streets with a notebook and really see how the post-Katrina IT recovery in the French Quarter has been going. Now granted, the city's French Quarter neighborhood is on some of the highest ground in the city, so it barely experienced any of the flooding caused by the surging floodwaters that poured over and destroyed the delicate levees in low-lying neighborhoods across the city.

But what the French Quarter does have is lots of major hotels and hundreds of small businesses, which were affected in various ways by the hurricane and its resulting power outages, flooding and other system failures across the region.

What did I find?

Well, five years after Katrina ripped into this historic and charming city, IT is still hard at work helping in the region's recovery.

Right after Katrina, I wrote about how IT workers in the Sheraton <URL: http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/104307/IT_staffers_at_Starwood_hotels_begin_the_road_back_after_Katrina?taxonomyId=83&pageNumber=2> and other major hotels were busy at work saving critical business data so it could be moved offsite to other cities until hotel operations here could be re-established. I also wrote about how many companies learned that their existing disaster recovery plans were sorely lacking and they began to make changes to be sure that they didn't experience the same problems if such a huge disaster ever again occurred here.

The lessons learned by IT leaders have helped make New Orleans and its residents, public officials and visitors safer in the event of any future emergencies, said Mavis Early, the executive director of the Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association <URL:http://www.gnohla.com/>. Before Katrina, few officials thought to locate governmental emergency response offices where they couldn't be affected by flooding or other disasters, she said. Today, the region's Homeland Security offices are located in an upper floor of City Hall where they are out of danger and where they can remain in operation during emergencies to provide and coordinate help for residents. At the same time, state-of-the-art communications systems and mechanisms have also been installed to replace systems that failed to provide adequate communications in the aftermath of Katrina, Early said. "There's an effective network of communications now," she said.

IT has also contributed by being involved in the creation of new reporting and notification systems in the event of a disaster, according to Early. The New Orleans Tourism Crisis Management Plan
<URL:http://www.neworleanscvb.com/static/index.cfm/contentID/448/sectionID/3/subsectionID/0>, a document that is several inches thick, was created to include details on how the evacuations of thousands of tourists will be done during future emergencies, including the availability of real-time computerized reports on the number of visitors in hotels across the city and how they would be matched to evacuation buses and staging areas set up in the event of such operations.

"We've now got one coordinated information source in the tourism industry" under the program, she said. "We speak with one voice" using critical lessons learned from Katrina and the confusion that often hampered post-hurricane clean-up and recovery.

There's still plenty of work to be done here in continuing rebuilding efforts across the region, Early acknowledged, but progress is being made slowly but surely. "There's a lot happening here," she said. "You can get a sense of how we have been moving. There's a momentum."

So what can your company learn from the experiences of disaster-affected businesses here in New Orleans and surrounds?

There are plenty of lessons:

*Be more prepared and think outside your existing disaster recovery processes. Are your emergency IT operations located outside of harm's way in the event of the unthinkable? The unthinkable can always happen. Remember the S.S. Titanic. Disasters happen.

*Back up your back-up plans. Establish a remotely located disaster recovery site outside the region so that it too won't be affected by a disaster that occurs near your primary location. Multiple back-up scenarios are your best IT protection.

*Be sure that your emergency generators for your IT operations are located out of harms way as well. Be sure they won't be located in areas of your buildings that could be flooded. Make sure they are set up on upper floors and are well-protected from the elements and other dangers. Many businesses here learned from Katrina that emergency generators in basements were not a good idea after the basements flooded and knocked out the generators.

*Constantly review and update your corporate IT back-up and disaster recovery plans and procedures to ensure that they are up to snuff and will truly work for your company when the plans are needed.

It always amazes me that it often takes a tragedy to remind us of the importance of preparation to best defend ourselves and our businesses from a disastrous event, but that's part of our being human beings. We are certainly fallible.

The beauty of a disaster, though, is that it also can bring rebirth.

Here in New Orleans, across the metropolitan area and into the rural areas surrounding this city, there is plenty of human suffering that continues, from street after street of abandoned, storm-damaged homes outside the French Quarter, including whole neighborhoods that were literally destroyed by the resulting floodwaters from the damaged levees.

But hope abounds, and few in this city appear to be giving up on making things better.

Everywhere I have walked and observed here in the last few days, there are businesses bustling and people living their lives and visitors enjoying their visits. I have talked to travelers from around the world who are here for business trips, vacations and even a family wedding on a riverboat. There's no quit in any of them, at least among the people who spoke with me.

I got that same sense inside the businesses where I spent money and experienced this unique southern city. I have never been here before, so I never knew pre-Katrina New Orleans. What I found here is hope, friendly people and positive attitudes.

Life goes on, and adjustments are being continuously made.

That's a disaster recovery and rebuilding plan that your company would be smart to follow.

There's much for your business and IT department to learn from the experiences of companies here in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

May you use that wisdom wisely, before disaster strikes.