Katrina: The Ultimate Testing Ground for Disaster Recovery

Gulf coast businesses take on the daunting task of restoring their operations after the storm.

For Walter Overby, hurricanes and other severe-weather events are a part of daily life on the Gulf Coast. Having endured Hurricane Ivan last year, Overby, vice president of systems delivery services for Alfa Insurance, in Montgomery, Ala., knew what kind of misery and devastation such storms could bring, and he had no intention of being caught unprepared.

So a month before Hurricane Katrina roared through the Gulf Coast, demolishing New Orleans and causing unprecedented levels of damage to portions of Mississippi and Alabama, a special task force at Alfa chose to invest in a mobile recovery unit from Agility Recovery Solutions, of Charlotte, N.C. The idea was to use the mobile unit to better serve policyholders in Alabama, Mississippi and other areas by providing a safe, self-contained work area with power and voice and data communications that would allow adjusters and other staff to conduct massive amounts of new business.

/zimages/4/28571.gifClick here to read about how the tech community stepped up in the wake of Katrina.

"A lot of times under these types of disasters, you see adjusters working out of cars or out of hotels with calling centers, or leased office space where they can find it," Overby said. "Usually [in] an area thats been devastated, [it] has been hard to find adequate [working] conditions. ... We just wanted to put our company in a position [that] if people tried to get in touch with us, they could, and get claims calls we could deal with in a timely fashion."

Once Alfa declared a company emergency during the hurricane, Agility sent a 24-by-68-foot, double-size mobile unit to a location in Mobile, Ala. However, several factors delayed the units arrival, including Federal Emergency Management Agency restrictions on road and highway access to areas slammed by Katrina.

"The magnitude of Katrina posed difficulties nobody could overcome. We got a mobile unit to the border and couldnt get into the state. We had to identify who we were to FEMA," said Bill Boyd, president and CEO of Agility. "This was a catastrophic event. The United States has never seen something like this, that big a region. An entire city was devastated."

Alfa was hardly alone in facing challenges. For businesses, universities and organizations throughout the Gulf Coast, even those with well-designed and practical disaster recovery plans, the task of bringing their organizations back online has proved more daunting than they feared. In many cases, technology has turned out to be an invaluable asset in the recovery process, but other companies have learned the hard way that even in an age of unceasing technical innovation, theres only so much that technology can do.

/zimages/4/28571.gifRead more here about how cyber-looters are capitalizing on Katrina.

"I think the majority of people [in affected areas] are recognizing the scope of this, and its not something [where] theyre going to be back up and running next week," said Belinda Wilson, executive director of business continuity and availability services for Hewlett-Packard Co., in Palo Alto, Calif. "Most people have almost accepted the level of devastation and realize this will not be a short-term recovery. Many of these places just need to be completely demolished. Theyre not waiting for any more on the damage assessments. I think its pretty clear."

In Houston to escape Katrinas destruction, Mike Roppolo, director of health services for the Newman School, in New Orleans, said the task of restoring the popular city is daunting. "Its going to take more than several months to rebuild that city and get it back to some form of what we knew to be New Orleans," Roppolo said. "Some families will return; some families may not return ever. Things might never be the same way for many of us there ever again."

Roppolo said Newman officials have decided that his school will not likely reopen until January at the earliest. In fact, an entire calendar year may be lost at the school due to myriad environmental and technical problems still plaguing New Orleans.

Yet, what seemed a relatively minor decision last spring to move all students health and immunization records from paper to an online electronic format stored off-site is now paying huge dividends to hundreds of families scrambling to enroll their children at replacement schools across the country. The Newman School is using Digitech Systems Inc.s ImageSilo service to store students health records. Through the service, Roppolo can grant requesting schools and parents secure access to the archived records.

"Our IT department thought it would be more cost-effective and give us more options to store things off-site. Of course, we could have never imagined we could be in the position we are now or using it for this purpose so soon," said Roppolo. "We have a lot of families that relocated to Houston, Dallas, Baton Rouge ... some are in Colorado, some in Florida, some in Wisconsin. By having all these documents scanned, we can make those immunization and medical records available by getting them off the server and get them in e-mail and PDF format to schools or parents requesting them."

Although the school itself wasnt damaged and is dry for the most part, Roppolo said, the manpower needed to move records for 1,200 students to Houston in order to fax or mail them would have been impossible to find during the hurricane and its aftermath.

Next Page: The long road to recovery.