Awaiting the arrival of the states second major hurricane in just three weeks, businesses and agencies across Florida are rolling out disaster preparedness plans to secure systems and communications infrastructure against the predicted high-winds ferocity of Hurricane Frances.
According to weather forecasters, Frances is expected to begin mercilessly battering Floridas eastern coastline sometime late Friday. More than two million Floridians have already been given notice to evacuate and more could follow to keep ahead of the storm, currently seen extending as much as 80 miles from its center.
Last month, Hurricane Charley caught many in Florida by surprise due to its slightly altered course, confounding forecasters at the last minute. The storms 145 mph winds tore through southwestern Florida, causing billions of dollars in damage statewide. Some reports suggest that Frances could even exceed the destruction wrought by Hurricane Andrew, which pummeled Florida in 1992. Recognized as the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history, Andrew caused damages exceeding $20 billion.
Still in full blown cleanup mode in Hurricane Charleys wake, some agencies, such as the Florida Department of Health, say they have taken the necessary IT and logistical steps to prepare for the anticipated fury of Frances.
“This is going to obviously be an awful lot worse [than Charley]. The news is saying it is bigger than Andrew. Wherever it strikes, theres going to be a lot of flooding and an awful lot of wind damage,” said David Taylor, CIO of Tallahassee-based Florida Department of Health.
“Were very well-prepared … we did very well against Charley, so were hoping to duplicate that, even though this [storm] is much larger.”
According to Taylor, redundant communications are critical during disaster recovery deployments. He said the state is equipped with an assortment of technologies to support communications during the storm, including cellular phones, satellite phones, radio functions, BlackBerrys and redundant e-mail systems tied to a hot data center site for failover.
In fact, critical e-mail systems have already been migrated onto servers outside the projected path of the storm. Florida runs thousands of servers dominated by Microsoft Windows, but also featuring Sun Solaris, Linux and Apache as well.
Taylor credits the BlackBerry and its capacity to perform peer-to-peer messaging as a critical tool during Charley as the only form of electronic communications able to send and receive transmissions to a makeshift Charlotte Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in Florida as the brunt of the storm raged.
“[During the hurricane], Charlottes first two Emergency Communications Centers were crushed. [Charley] blew the roof right off. They had to go to backup EOC centers and that didnt have an IT infrastructure, so BlackBerrys were all they had at that point,” Taylor said.
New Operations Center
Although the time frame for physical cleanup of Frances is impossible to predict, Taylor said he is confident that Floridas central operations can be restored in a matter of weeks in a worst-case scenario.
Others preparing the state for a lockdown, such as Joel Haas, CEO of the Orlando-based American Red Cross of Central Florida, said he fears that old 15-ton trees and other debris already loosened by Charley could become dangerous if the slow-footed Frances lashes at the state for nearly 24 hours, as forecasters expect.
“Trees still standing are loosened by Charley. If [Frances] stays on the same track its on, were going to have more trees down. In Orange County alone, Charley caused 2 million cubic yards of downed tees and rubble. The destruction is just huge,” Haas said.
To prepare and create a new operations center for Frances, the American Red Cross unit of Central Florida was forced to move its still-active Charley operations center—offering care, feeding and casework—to a nearby Methodist church auditorium. By Saturday, Haas said 30 shelters running 24 hours a day will be open and must remain active until they are no longer required.
Haas said Charley might have helped the American Red Cross have a better understanding of what it can expect from communications infrastructure.
“The phone of choice, if you can get your hands on one, is satellite phones because a cell phone is not reliable. What we learned from Charley was that cell phones arent of much use when the antennas get ripped off the cell phone towers,” he said. To help remedy the problem, Haas said cell phone companies responded by bringing in portable towers to temporarily restore cell phone service.
IT vendors such as Palo Alto, Calif.-based Hewlett Packard Co. and Round Rock, Texas-based Dell Inc. are also closely monitoring the path of Frances to help ensure customers that their enterprise systems are not at risk.
Belinda Wilson, executive director of HPs Business Continuity Services for the Americas, HP Services, says her department has already been put “on alert” by eight customers located in Miami, Boca Raton, Tampa, West Palm Beach, Ft. Lauderdale and Titusville. If any of those customers declares the need for help, HP can take immediate action to recover and migrate customers data to a virtualized server and data center infrastructure environment at one of its safe, off-site facilities.
For its part, Dell has been monitoring Frances via its Enterprise Command Center on its campus. The center keeps watch over the Americas for any activity that may impact customers and their assets. Along with Frances, the center has been keeping a close eye on activity surrounding the Republican National Convention, said Jan Uhrich, vice president of Dells enterprise support services.
To keep one step ahead of the slow-footed Frances, Dell has taken steps to review its entire parts and product inventory in areas that may be affected by the storm by zooming into specific ZIP codes of install bases. Ground forces and resources in those areas have already been briefed and given information on nearby enterprise customers and what systems theyre running, should they need any parts moved on the fly. Those parts can include servers, SAN (storage area network) components, workstations and switches.