New Orleans CIO: It was the wild, wild West

New Orleans CIO Greg Meffert talks with SearchCIO.com about surviving Hurricane Katrina -- and trying to bring New Orleans back to life.

In the days following Hurricane Katrina, it was New Orleans CIO Greg Meffert's task to establish telephone communications between Air Force One and Mayor Ray Nagin. Cell phone towers had toppled and phone lines were dead. By luck, a member of Meffert's IT staff had established a Vonage account prior to the storm and accessed his Internet phone account once power returned.

In order to set up a communications headquarters for the city, though, Meffert had to raid an abandoned Office Depot store and deploy more brawn than brains. With rescue efforts behind him, and still operating from a hotel ballroom, Meffert is planning an ambitious Internet voting system for displaced New Orleans residents to use during the next citywide elections. Here he talks with SearchCIO.com about surviving Hurricane Katrina -- and trying to bring New Orleans back to life.

How many of you went into Office Depot?

Meffert: Me, the chief of police, one of my guys and three other cops. We actually fought with looters while we were there. It was wild. It was wild. It really was.

Tell us what got you there.

Meffert: At this point we knew there was one Internet connection working, even though it was three inches away from water -- and we had emergency power. So we had literally one outlet and one Internet cord. One hot jack. So there's that Vonage account but we don't have a soft phone. So it's like, what do you do? And we thought well, we can just go to get the routers. You just think very linearly. Very mechanically. And if I was not a believer, by the way, in Maslow's hierarchy before this, I am clearly a believer now. That concept says 'The first thing is whether or not I'm fed. If I'm still hungry, all I can think about is food. And then once I got food, then I can think about whether I'm hot or cold and all these other things.' That's the way it felt.

And so the reason we looked at the Vonage thing -- we had this one Internet connection. We had a laptop with about one hour's worth of power. So we go out there and we say 'Where's the nearest retailer of Vonage equipment? Office Depot. Hey, OK, there's one on St. Charles.' And we go there. And there's all these looters in there -- and they took all the high-end stuff, the laptops and all that -- all the fun stuff. But they left all the geeky stuff. So eventually we still needed a major Cisco router, which we ended up ripping out of the back office.

And the police chief did that for you?

Meffert: He did do that -- with his bare hands! This is an extreme set of circumstances where you see things that would never happen in any other scenario. When would anybody forcibly remove a Cisco router from a rack by sheer force? It would never happen in any other scenario. But there it was. We got two screws out; we were using butter knives because we didn't have tools. We couldn't get the other two screws out. And the chief is a big man. He just said, 'Move aside.' He said 'You need this right here?' And he didn't know what it was. And we said 'Yeah we need that,' the Cisco router, and he just ripped it out. I've never seen anything like that.

I hate to be dramatic, but one of those cops who was with us -- he ended up shooting himself in the head. People don't realize...but it was really Wild West down here. It really was.

Did you evacuate your family?

Meffert: What happened was the chief's family and my family stayed behind at first. And my kids and my wife were still sleeping and so were his. And then he got the buzz on the radio that the levee broke. And we all had been through the slosh models and everything, so we knew this was officially the worst -case scenario. That meant 10 to 12 feet downtown in just a matter of an hour or two. Maybe a couple, three hours. Just an unreal type effect.

And so, we woke them up and we got them in the car -- and as they're driving you could see the water rising behind them. I looked at him and said, 'I totally know how the guys in the Titanic felt.' It wasn't a noble, know-you're-going-to-die thing. It was just 'You gotta get these people out.' But we had no idea what was going to happen. So in other words, I kind of made that connection. Those guys probably thought they were still going to live when they got their wives and kids off. It was just...you didn't know.

When you signed on with Mayor Nagin's administration in 2002, did you ever imagine this kind of scenario?

Meffert: Last week, he looked over at me and said, 'Did you ever think that you'd ever be doing this?' He must have said that a half dozen times. And I'm like, 'No.' I was acting mayor, for instance , for five days. Actually two stints, for five days and another four days, when he was away.

So, as acting mayor, you're usually just kind of sitting back doing paperwork. This wasn't like that. It sounds terrible...I was telling my wife; she asked 'What was the first thing you had to decide for the city?' I said 'Well, I sat down and said, 'OK, guys what's the major problem today?' Problem one: corpses are clogging up the sewer and water drains. Well, who in the hell ever prepares for that? There's no degree in that. We have snipers shooting at the helicopters. What do you want to do about that? Just incredible stuff for a tech guy.

A lot of your work now has to do with land lots. Is that data still available? Did you lose data?

Meffert: It was kind of a point of honor for us. The Web site and all the data -- actually the Web site stayed up even when the tornado went over things. We did not lose any of that data. It's just that the data is 70% irrelevant now. I can go and see the assessed value of a house is $200,000. Well, that house probably isn't worth $20,000 right now. So we've really moved more into kind of being less about the back office. We had to kind of and move away from that because it's not really relevant -- and move into pictometry and getting satellite photos and being much more about that. That's one thing -- in the midst of this tragedy you're getting a lot of things that never would have happened before. Right now, (one thing we're working on) -- and it's going to the point of one of the major things that we're going to announce here -- is Internet voting. Once again, if I told you, 'Hey, we're going to do Internet voting for real, in a real election, and you're going vote and use kiosks', you'd think I was smoking something.

But I have to do that now. Because what am I going to do? Open poll stations where there's three people in an entire city block? So out of this tragedy you're getting an opportunity to do a lot of common sense things. And without that pushback of people saying 'Hey, look, the old system works. Well, no, it doesn't. It's gone. The old system is completely gone.

Do you have practical plans for Internet voting in place?

Meffert: We do. So for us, at least 95% of our population isn't here. And we've already postponed one set of elections, kind of indefinitely. The model that we're looking to the most is, for instance, the airport check-in kiosks. Where data's not just secure -- it's also not going to a central area. So there's nobody who can manipulate the data. We're going to keep it, if you will. That data is going to be sitting on those kiosk machines in a secure way that only the secretary of state will be able to do anything with it. It's not going to one big database in the sky. To prevent any kind of abuse it's going to be a level of authentication that's equal or superior to what you do now. Those are the kinds of things that we're doing.

You have the resources to get that going and actually target it for an election that's on the books?

Meffert: Yeah, because it's necessary. It's not a gee-whiz plaything kind of thing. It's a real issue of how we get democracy to continue here.

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