Oreck Corp. thought it had a disaster recovery plan. Then Hurricane Katrina struck. To keep the business alive, a dedicated crew of executives and staff had to surmount huge obstacles. Here is their story.

Prologue: The Forecast

When Michael Evanson left his office at Oreck Corp. in New Orleans on Friday, Aug. 26, he didn't know if he would be coming back to work on Monday. Out in the Atlantic Ocean, a Category 2 hurricane named Katrina was churning toward the southern coast of the U.S., but the National Hurricane Center predicted that the storm would miss New Orleans before its expected landfall on Monday. Late Friday the forecast changed: Katrina might hit the city. Evanson, the vice president of IT at Oreck, alerted IBM's disaster recovery unit that the privately held vacuum cleaner maker might be in for some heavy weather. In his two years at the company, Evanson had had to flee headquarters only once because of a storm, but even then he didn't have to switch to a backup data center. The company had done that only during tests.

Oreck's executives scheduled a conference call for 11 a.m. the next day to discuss what to do if Katrina continued to threaten New Orleans. Starting at 5 a.m. on Saturday morning, Evanson monitored the storm on TV and the Internet: Katrina was now a Category 3 hurricane -- and it was headed straight for New Orleans.

Evanson called Pat Eiermann, the company's AS/400 administrator, and told him to notify IBM that Oreck was going into emergency mode and would shut down its systems that day and switch its data operations to a Big Blue facility. Next, Evanson dialed in for a conference call with CEO Tom Oreck, who told his executives what most of them already knew: The company was going to evacuate.

Evanson drove to Home Depot to buy plywood and spent the rest of the day boarding up his house and calling the data center to check on the backup progress. Evanson pounded the last nail around 11 p.m. That same night, Tom Oreck flew his private plane with his family and the backup tapes to Houston.

At 5:30 on Sunday morning, Evanson, his wife and their three dogs piled into the family truck and joined the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the city. That day the National Hurricane Center upgraded Katrina to a Category 5 storm, the top of the scale, and tracked winds gusting to 215 miles per hour. As Evanson drove toward Memphis, Tenn., the sky was clear and sunny, with only a slight breeze hinting that any sort of trouble might be on its way.

Evanson hoped that he might be back in his office on Tuesday. Instead, he would be gone six weeks.

This was first published in January 2006

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