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In the Eye of the Storm: New Orleans CIO on Hurricane Katrina's Impact

In the days following Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans CIO Greg Meffert had to improvise quite a bit. For example, with cell phone towers and landlines out of commission, Meffert used the Vonage account of an IT staffer to establish telephone communications between Air Force One and the city's mayor, Ray Nagin. 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 now behind him, Meffert -- who has a staff of 100 and an IT budget of $30 million -- talks with CIO Decisions about surviving Katrina and trying to bring New Orleans back to life.

How did you end up at Office Depot?
We had literally one outlet and one Internet cord. 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."

We had a laptop with about one hour's worth of power. So we say, "Where's the nearest retailer of Vonage equipment? Office Depot." And we go there, and there's all these looters. They took all the high-end stuff, the laptops, but they left all the geeky stuff. We ended up ripping [a major Cisco router] out of the back office.

And the police chief did that for you?
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?

When you signed on with Mayor Nagin's administration in 2002, did you ever imagine this kind of scenario?
No. I was acting mayor, for instance, for five days. Actually, two stints for five days, and another four days when he was away.

As acting mayor, you're usually doing paperwork. This wasn't like that. 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.

What is the one image that epitomizes Katrina for you?
Air Force One calls, and you have to call a number back for security reasons. I said, "Mr. Mayor, I've got Air Force One on the phone that I just stole from Office Depot yesterday." "Stole" is probably not the right word. "Commandeered."

Charlie Russo is a former news writer for SearchCIO.com and SearchSMB.com. Ellen O'Brien, a former senior editor at CIO Decisions, is now a senior editor at Storage magazine. Write to her at eobrien@techtarget.com.

This was last published in October 2005

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