Katrina: What Have We Learned?

A year ago, Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast and rewrote the rules of disaster recover. Here's what companies in the region have learned since.

Tom Oreck began shopping for a second manufacturing facility for vacuum cleaner maker Oreck in December. Tulane Universitys Paul Barron now plans for a data center shutdown that lasts weeks, not days. Jan Rideout, of Northrop Grummans Ship Systems Sector, consolidated data centers and made sure they were nowhere near a fault line. These are just some of the lessons technology executives have learned leading up to the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which on Aug. 29, 2005, pummeled the Gulf Coast region, left more than 1,300 people dead and caused $96 billion in damages, according to a White House report on Katrinas aftermath.

"Katrina opened our eyes to the fact that our business depended on a single facility. We started looking in December for another facility," said Oreck, president and CEO of Oreck. "We never thought there would be a storm that would take out both facilities—New Orleans and Long Beach," Oreck said, referring to his companys New Orleans headquarters and Long Beach, Miss., manufacturing plant 76 miles away.

"Everybody operated on the notion that you would leave for two or three days and then come back. Shutting down the data center, backing up the tapes—everything worked just fine. But nobody contemplated the impact. It was regional," said Barron, interim provost, vice president for IT and CIO of Tulane, in New Orleans. This year, Tulane is open once again and is about to receive thousands of students for its fall semester; last fall, the university had to send all its students back home.

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If Katrina accomplished anything, it forced executives to rethink disaster recovery plans in the wake of the nations costliest weather-related disaster. New Orleans businesses stand ready for this years hurricane season with an array of overhauled defenses. If the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks made companies create disaster recovery plans, Katrina forced them to rework those initial efforts.

Among the biggest Katrina take-aways:

  • Geography matters—a lot. Geography was much on the minds of Oreck staff at a November 2005 corporate disaster strategy session, where company executives decided to build a second manufacturing plant in Cookeville, Tenn., 573 miles from Orecks Long Beach facility. "Its not likely to be hit by the same event," Oreck said. "We took possession 30 to 40 days ago. Well have our first products in September. That is fast. For us, speed is a strategic advantage in just about everything we do."

The Cookeville opening was just a start. Orecks New Orleans data center housed an IBM AS/400 server co-hosting corporate data and a Web server for Oreck.com. Now the Web server is hosted in Atlanta, and the AS/400 is mirrored in Boulder, Colo.

Location also was key to Northrop Grummans thinking. Rideout, CIO of Northrop Grummans Ship Systems Sector, in Pascagoula, Miss., was spurred by Katrina to reconsider the location of the companys data centers scattered across the country. A product of a number of corporate mergers over the years, the company has some 200 data center locations and had decided, pre-Katrina, to consolidate them to eight. Katrina prompted the company to boil down that number to four—in Dallas; Rolling Meadows, Ill.; Lafayette, Colo.; and Chesterfield County, Va.—making sure the centers are nowhere near earthquake fault lines or hurricane-prone coastal areas.

Last year, Katrina forced Northrop Grumman to shut down 200 servers in Pascagoula and quickly bring up their replacements at a company data center in Dallas. Previously a minor site, the Dallas data center continues to run the servers for Pascagoula as it did a year ago, and it is now designated as one of the four critical data centers in the companys technology blueprint.

"There are some days when I say, Thank God we did have Katrina," Rideout said. "That can sound weird, but it did help us to accelerate some technology. There have been good things that have come out of it, as painful as it has been. I do think that it made the business appreciate IT more."

Next Page: Lesson 2: Budgets may hinder big plans.