US Red Cross looks to IT for post-Katrina recovery

IT is playing a central part in cleaning up after Hurricane Katrina

Once Hurricane Katrina has taken a final swipe at Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, the American Red Cross will begin quickly deploying satellite communications and other IT systems in affected areas to help storm victims begin piecing their lives back together.

As the storm approached the Southern US late last week, the Washington-based Red Cross began sending equipment and personnel to areas outside the storm's projected path so help could be brought in quickly after the winds and flooding subside. Katrina made landfall in Louisiana early this morning with sustained winds of 145 mph, but veered just enough to the east to spare New Orleans a direct blow. Even so, flooding, power outages and heavy damage to structures were reported throughout the region.

The Red Cross is planning to begin deploying a host of systems it will need, including satellite telephones, portable satellite dishes, specially equipped communications trucks, high- and low-band radio systems, and generator-powered wireless computer networks, says Jason Wiltrout, a Red Cross network engineer.

Nine specially designed Ford Excursion sport utility trucks, dubbed Emergency Communications Response Vehicles (ECRV), include various radio systems that allow communications on a wide range of frequencies across disaster areas, Wiltrout says. The vehicles have Very Small Aperture Terminal generator-equipped satellite dishes that can help establish communications in the absence of working phone lines and cell phone towers.

Each of the ECRVs also has 10 voice-over-IP satellite phones and at least 10 wireless laptops, as well as a selection of portable, tripod-mounted satellite dishes used for communications after the storm's winds have eased.

Also awaiting deployment are IP-based fax machines and mobile servers built into shipping crate-like containers, Wiltrout says. Each two-crate server system includes a server, a Cisco router, a Cisco switch, a keyboard and a monitor and will allow the agency to keep records on disaster victims who receive aid from Red Cross workers.

Martin Franke, executive director of chapter information systems at the Red Cross, says names, addresses and other information about victims will be collected using the laptops and then transmitted wirelessly via the portable servers to a central database running CRM applications from Siebel Systems.

"It lets us give better service and better follow-up service" to victims because the records can be accessed later by any Red Cross worker from anywhere in the network, he says. "They're not going to have to tell [their] terrible stories once again," to get additional help at a later date.

Using the database, the agency can issue debit cards to victims to provide fixed amounts of emergency funds for housing, clothing, food and other essentials, Franke says.

The Red Cross is prepared to help what could be several hundred thousand victims of the hurricane, says Steve Cooper, the agency's new CIO. "We're preparing for the worst and hoping for the best," he says. So far, about 2,900 Red Cross staff members and volunteers have been deployed to assist in the hardest hit regions of New Orleans and in Biloxi and Gulfport in Mississioppi, he says.

Paul Burke, the owner of PBI, a small medical IT networks company in Louisville, Ohio, arrived early Sunday at the Red Cross' Falls Church, Virginia, operations centre to help run the network for the disaster response team. Burke is the relief agency's network operations supervisor and will help maintain and run its satellite communications system for the next several weeks. He closed his own company so he could help storm victims and said volunteers will do whatever is needed to keep the disaster recovery operations on track.

"Sometimes we have to take baling twine and chicken wire to make it work," he says.

Businesses worked before the storm's arrival to protect data and facilities.

David Sjolander, vice president of hotel systems at Minneapolis-based Carlson Hospitality Group, says a 1-year-old Country Inn & Suites hotel on Magazine Street in New Orleans was closed and boarded up Sunday as the storm approached. Most key IT systems, including servers, are one story up, on the mezzanine floor of the 155-room hotel — apparently safe from flood waters. Other equipment on the ground floor was moved upstairs to prevent damage, he says.

Data backups were done and moved offsite before the storm arrived, he said, and a corporate IT worker is on standby to fly to New Orleans to assist in recovery efforts, he says. The hotel is near the city's French Quarter, Harrah's Casino and the Ernest N Morial Convention Centre and was created out of seven historic buildings dating to the 1860s.

Jim Medeiros, vice president of shared services for Atlanta-based United Parcel Service (UPS), said his company's meteorological team had been tracking Katrina since early last week and was able to plan shutdowns of some of its package sorting facilities in the storm's path. UPS has data centers in Atlanta and New Jersey, as well as 1,000 package sorting facilities around the country where operations can be rerouted in the event of natural disasters, he says. So far, the company hasn't received damage reports about its facilities in Katrina's path.

"With this storm, I don't think that any building will have no damage," Medeiros says.

As for the Red Cross, Cooper said that with disaster recovery operations beginning, the group is seeking donations to help hurricane victims. "This is a time when we rely heavily on the generosity of all Americans," he says.

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