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Bracing for the next Katrina

The CIO of Mississippi Power remembers Hurricane Katrina's wrath when it hit the Gulf Coast nearly a year ago. Her company's ability to restore power to thousands of residents in a matter of days is a success story by most measures. But its recovery efforts weren't perfect. What it did right, wrong and how it's bracing for another hurricane season

CARLSBAD, Calif. -- With Hurricane Katrina still fresh in their minds, IT leaders are turning to those who endured the devastation nearly a year ago for answers as another hurricane season begins.

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted as many as 10 hurricanes could strike from now until September, with four to six storms expected to be major hurricanes that could cause disastrous flood and wind damage.

For some reason you always think it won't happen to you. Don't be too optimistic. Assume the worst and plan for the worst.
Aline Ward
CIOMississippi Power Co.
CIOs want to know: What went right? What went wrong? And, most important, am I prepared to keep my company's infrastructure up and running if disaster strikes again?

At this week's CIO Decisions Conference being held here, Mississippi Power Co. CIO Aline Ward told her story. Katrina left 100% of her Gulfport, Miss.-based company's 194,000 customers in the area without power, forced hundreds of her employees from their homes and rendered all of the company's corporate offices uninhabitable.

"The No. 1 priority was to re-establish communications," Ward said. "Without communication you can do absolutely nothing. You're dead in the water. It was critical to get communications up and stable. It can't be intermittent. And you have to have capacity."

Ward set up satellite dishes that could carry voice and data; she powered up bulky, five-year-old satellite phones; and she re-established radio communications for her field service personnel by running an extension cord from a ground-floor generator to a seventh-floor radio hub in one of her company's devastated office buildings.

After re-establishing communications, Ward's next priorities were to establish logistics for supplies and to offer support to employees who were devastated by personal loss. In 12 days all the company's customers who still had homes or businesses to light were receiving power.

"You can always do better," Ward said. She suggested CIOs be prepared to operate without communications for at least 48 hours. They should also identify two alternates for every individual who is assigned a critical storm assignment.

Ward said IT's role in storm preparation is to update its disaster manual annually, notify employees of how to protect their computers and phones, keep emergency radios charged before storms, arrange for satellite telephones, and prepare generators. She said IT should also assess the vulnerabilities of its facilities.

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With experts suggesting that regions of the country, such as New England, could see a major hurricane for the first time in many years, complacency is unacceptable, she said.

"For some reason you always think it won't happen to you," Ward said. "Don't be too optimistic. Assume the worst and plan for the worst."

Joanne Kossuth, CIO of the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass., said she is looking at hurricane preparedness this year. Her school's campus is unlikely to be flooded during a storm, but she is worried about wind damage.

Her college's buildings are steel and glass structures and she is unsure whether they can withstand hurricane winds. Kossuth said her school has multiple redundant systems that should allow her to keep voice and data flowing, but she said she would heed Ward's advice and line up some satellite phones just in case.

Eric Simon, vice president of IT at Brookfield Homes, said he was forced to take disaster recovery seriously after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Brookfield Homes' sister company, Brookfield Properties Corp., was the owner of the World Financial Center in New York City.

"I learned the value of collocated capabilities," Simon said. "To ensure that different geographical divisions of the company are able to operate in each other's facilities."

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Each distinct business unit of Brookfield Homes, a $1.5 billion Del Mar, Calif.-based home developer, runs on similar environments with the same hardware and software. Each night, the business units exchange backup tapes. If one business unit is knocked out by a disaster, another business unit can restore the system.

Simon said the devastation of Katrina made him re-evaluate disaster recovery again, such as having an IT continuity plan. He said it's one thing to keep his systems up and running with a good plan, but it's useless if it is unavailable. Simon's continuity plan includes compiling documents and having software licenses in a central repository.

Katrina also offered a valuable lesson to the private sector. After seeing how unprepared the government was to deal with the storm, private companies have to be more prepared and self-reliant, Simon said.

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Writer

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