New Orleans tech businesses restore operations

IT managers and staffers at New Orleans-based companies have been working to salvage their systems, data and websites, some not knowing whether they still had viable businesses to support or homes that they could return to.

"We're not thinking of ourselves," said Robert Leithman, president of Integrated Data Systems, a systems integrator and hosting services provider. "It's helpful not to have time to think about it."

Leithman's company was one of many scrambling to maintain operations in the wake of the devastating flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina. In a catastrophe of such epic proportions, "even the best-laid plans go awry really quickly", said Leithman, who left New Orleans two days before the storm hit to go to a backup facility in Florida.

The trip, which normally takes about five hours, was a 15-hour ordeal. One of the company's engineers, who thought he was in a safe location, saw the building's roof ripped off by winds. And even though Integrated Data Systems had distributed its servers and data among offices in several cities following the September 11 terrorist attacks, the loss of telecommunications capabilities in the areas hit by Katrina complicated the company's efforts to restore customers' systems.

One of the company's hosting centers, located near the stricken Superdome in New Orleans, remained inaccessible late this week. Another, which is set up in a bunker in nearby Metairie, Louisiana, was live but lacked any external connectivity, Leithman said.

Still, his team had restored basic web access, instant messaging and Hotmail services and was doing work for corporate clients such as McIlhenny, the New Orleans-based maker of Tabasco sauce. Integrated Data Systems set up a temporary website for McIlhenny and provided email access to its employees. "Things are far from normal, but at least we're getting the semblance of it," Leithman said.

The situation was similar for the IT staff that supports the three hotels operated in New Orleans by Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, said IT executives at the company.

As the storm approached, four IT workers moved servers and other equipment from the ground floors of the hotels to higher ones. They also did extra backups of onsite data, including catering contracts and sales information for upcoming conventions and meetings. In addition, the staffers hooked up phones and computers in ballrooms, where stranded guests were moved for safety reasons.

By Tuesday, when it became obvious that the damage to the city from the hurricane and the flooding wouldn't be reversed quickly, the IT team began preparing to shuttle copies of the hotels' data to a Starwood-owned Westin hotel in Atlanta, where a remote office is being set up.

Mark McBeth, director of IT for North America at Starwood, said business users need the data so they can work with customers to move scheduled events to other locations. He and Starwood CIO Bill Oates praised the staffers in New Orleans for their ability to deal with the data-retention issues as well as the IT needs of guests and other hotel employees. "You just sort of cope," McBeth said. "The team was dealing with a crisis, and they don't even know if their own homes are OK."

Brad Brewster, founder and creative director of New Orleans-based Bent Media, said the interactive multimedia and marketing services firm's offices were surrounded by five feet of water. Brewster temporarily relocated his servers to a makeshift office in West Monroe, Lousiana. As of Thursday, his 13 employees were scattered in hotels or with friends, or were still in transit to safe locations.

Brewster was busy trying to contact clients to see what they needed. One of Bent Media's businesses is managing websites for companies, some of which were also located in New Orleans. Clients that depend on online transactions want to post messages to customers on their sites immediately, Brewster said. Others are just focused for now on messaging employees or establishing an intranet.

"Many cannot do business," Brewster said. "They don't know where their employees are. Some business facilities may be damaged or underwater and destroyed."

With his own company's intellectual assets in hand, Brewster expects Bent Media to continue working as a virtual organisation in the short term. "Our clients need us, and like anyone, we need revenue," he said. "And that becomes even more important given our situation."

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