Disaster recovery planning gets another look after Hurricane Katrina

Disaster recovery planning is being revisited by many CIOs post Hurricane Katrina

Disaster recovery planning became a top priority for CIOs after the disasterous Hurricane Katrina hit

Oreck Corp. was among a handful of lucky companies to resume operations quickly in Hurricane Katrina's wake. The New Orleans-based maker of vacuum cleaners shifted business operations to Dallas for six weeks, using President Tom Oreck's private plane to airlift employees to a 100-seat temporary facility leased from business partner IBM. Oreck also had to relocate some business systems to Dallas, including financial and order-entry systems.

By migrating people and equipment, Oreck was able to resume business operations just days after Katrina made landfall. Although many technical aspects of its disaster recovery planning worked well, hindsight is prompting Oreck to take steps to guide its employees on where to go and what to do in the event of another evacuation.

"We had a scaled-down approach to disaster recovery planning, primarily centered on an IT plan and some plans associated with manufacturing facilities. But like most companies, we didn't give very much thought to our people and how we were going to communicate with them," said Michael Evanson, Oreck's vice president of IT.

Evanson said Oreck's executives never imagined a storm of the magnitude of Katrina, which turned cities into ghost towns and sent many businesses scurrying from the Gulf. The roof at Oreck's New Orleans headquarters building was destroyed, resulting in water damage. The company also lost a "significant" amount of finished goods inventory, and its manufacturing plant near Gulfport, Miss., was out of commission for about two weeks.

"Our plan going into this was that one or the other of our facilities would be okay. The storm was so large that it kicked a field goal right between them," Evanson said.

During previous hurricane-related shutdowns, Oreck executives focused mainly on securing buildings and equipment, leaving employees to fend for themselves. The magnitude of Katrina underscored the need to provide for dislocated workers and their families, Evanson said.

Among revisions to Oreck's disaster recovery planning are agreements with certain hotel chains to purchase prearranged blocks of rooms to house employees should evacuations become necessary. Also being formalized is Oreck's agreement for backup facilities with IBM.

"The people element that we didn't think too much about became critically important during Katrina -- things like disaster counseling and crisis management for our employees," Evanson said.

Oreck has made some technology shifts as well. The company runs an IBM AS/400-based environment for its business data. Before Katrina, Oreck relied on backup tapes that were physically stored at a remote site. But with roads cut off by the storm, those tapes weren't readily accessible and Oreck was unable to immediately recover critical business data.

What's more, Oreck's practice was to shut down its systems and take a snapshot of data that was stored for up to six hours. Dissatisfied with that time interval, and painfully aware of the disruption caused by depending on physical tapes, Oreck has begun moving to continuous backup of data on its iSeries servers, in which the last 10 minutes of data are fully replicated off site.

"We're in the process of installing replication for some of our critical network-based systems like e-mail, and those [systems] will replicate off site on a continuous basis with hot cut-over capability so we don't have to scramble to take all the equipment out," Evanson said.

He said the company hasn't decided yet whether to collapse some data onto a storage area network, but the idea is under discussion, as are possibly using virtual blade servers "so we don't duplicate everything off site but can do it in a more controlled fashion."

Katrina also left a trail of devastation across Mississippi. Although flooding wasn't as severe as in New Orleans, powerful winds snapped cell phone towers like toothpicks and sent power lines crashing to the ground. Like many companies, Southern Farm Bureau Life Insurance Co. (SFBLI) in Jackson, Miss., was caught completely off-guard in regards to its disaster recovery planning.

"We had sort of a loose disaster-recovery plan that we never thought we were going to need. Then boom," said Billy Sims, vice president of human resources for the 635-employee company. "Now we're more alert to the 'what-ifs.' "

The insurance company, which serves 1 million policyholders in 10 states, couldn't afford to be out of touch for long. Aside from worrying about its employees, Sims said the company needed to be able to process insurance claims for people affected by the hurricane.

In a burst of foresight, SFBLI had spent $1,300 before the storm to purchase a backup generator in anticipation of the storm. What it didn't plan for was having a supply of gasoline to power the generator, a deficiency that is being corrected in its revised disaster-recovery document.

"We've talked about where do we get fuel and how do we get it here if the roads are out," Sims said.

Also being formalized, Sims said, are workforce plans to provide a range of on-site services to employees, including arrangements for temporary daycare for employees with small children.

"That was one of the things we had to think about. With schools and daycare facilities shut down, how do we get people back to work. It's obvious they can't just leave their kids at home," Sims said.

The storm's impact is being felt in smaller ways, too. Some companies are changing how they structure their business travel. Charles Handler is owner of Rocket-Hire Inc., a New Orleans firm that helps companies with online screening and assessment of job applicants. When Katrina whirled through New Orleans, Handler was in Australia on a business trip. He learned from others that his office was under seven feet of water, with no phones or electricity.

"I probably won't schedule business trips during hurricane season again," Handler said.

Even as New Orleans begins to show signs of its old self, Handler said he expects the specter of Katrina will forever alter the way that businesses in the Big Easy and points south react to a pending storm.

"I've never evacuated for a storm and probably wouldn't have this time, had I not been traveling," he said. "But there's going to be a lot more evacuations now than we've ever seen before."

Garry Kranz is a freelance business and technology writer in Richmond, Va. He can be reached at gkranz@ureach.com.

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This was first published in March 2006

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