Katrina Brought Out the Best of IT

Hurricane Katrina was the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. It displaced more than a million people and created a federal disaster area covering 90,000 square miles. Its effects were unprecedented, but the response from the IT industry was powerful. Working through the American Red Cross , the industry donated tens of millions of dollars in cash, products and services.

Companies also sent thousands of volunteers into the area to support relief efforts. This is the story of one disaster response effort that had enormous impact.

Katrina hit New Orleans on Monday, Aug. 29. The magnitude of the disaster increased significantly on Tuesday when the levee broke and the flooding began. Steve Cooper, CIO at the American Red Cross, realized that the response effort required would be enormous. He knew that the capacity of his IT organization, while extensive, would fall short of what was needed, so he asked the CIOs at his major IT suppliers to meet at Red Cross headquarters in Washington.

On Thursday, Sept. 1, 60 executives from 27 organizations attended the meeting on one day's notice, and all of them offered help. The participating companies included giant vendors and small suppliers spanning the industry (see www.redcross.org/sponsors/helping.html ). They agreed to contribute cash, products, services and people to the relief efforts.

At the initial meeting, three things happened that were critical to the success of the effort. First, Cooper asked the companies to put aside industry competition and focus on helping the victims. They did. Second, Cooper admitted that he didn't have the resources to respond sufficiently and asked for help. Several attendees stated their admiration for his candid and timely request for help. Often, they said, people wait too long to ask for assistance. Third, the Red Cross asked the group to formulate a plan together, instead of mandating a particular solution.

By late Thursday, the group had come up with a relief strategy, and by Saturday - just five days after Katrina hit -- multicompany teams began work on the following major IT projects:

Shelter services. One team developed a system to register and track people in shelters. This was not straightforward, since shelters were created in multiple locations (schools, churches, hotels and public buildings) and opened and closed in response to changing demands. Intel and Cisco led the team that donated and installed a standard communications kit at each site, including PCs, VoIP phones, wiring and supporting infrastructure. These kits served as phone banks and computer centers for each shelter, enabling survivors to communicate with family members.

Financial assistance. Normally, the Red Cross sends response teams into disaster areas to physically give debit cards to victims, but the devastation wrought by Katrina precluded this approach. Instead, the financial assistance team, led by Avaya and SBC , constructed a California call center where survivors could register and have funds wire-transferred to a Western Union office. The 400-seat call center was created in one week and handled a large call volume daily.

The "Family linking" information database. More than 50 uncoordinated Web sites sprang up after Katrina in an effort to identify victims and reunite families. Microsoft , Yahoo and Google worked together to develop a system to crawl the Web to search these sites. Then they created a central repository, KatrinaSafe.org, to enable family members to connect with one another. IBM and the San Diego Supercomputer Center developed the sites's back-end matching program to remove redundancies and make the remaining entries as unambiguous as possible.

Infrastructure. This team provided the technology underpinnings that enabled the other teams to operate effectively. It expanded the network capacity of the Red Cross by 400% in two days, enabling effective communication among volunteers, suppliers, shelters, and Red Cross field operations and headquarters. Additional efforts expanded existing Red Cross systems to collect contributions and register and screen volunteers.

For a month, these multicompany IT teams worked long hours to help the victims. Fortunately, each of the companies involved had executive management that actively supported the projects. This enabled the various teams to divert their companies' goods and services to the relief efforts without red tape. (For team reports and photos, visit www.wirelessfort.net/blog and http://spaces.msn.com/members/edfaulkner.)

Several key lessons have emerged from this effort:

The private sector has an important role to play in disaster preparedness and disaster response. U.S. citizens expect government and relief agencies, including the Red Cross, to lead these efforts. However, the private sector has the ability to move quickly, the necessary key skills and the desire to provide disaster assistance.

The U.S. needs a powerful public/private alliance that can be activated during times of national emergency. It's only a matter of time until the next hurricane, earthquake or pandemic, such as the bird flu, hits. It's much easier to get cooperation from people you already know. Cooper contacted companies that were already providing products and services to the Red Cross. Now that an ad hoc IT disaster response group has been formed, a more permanent partnership can be established in anticipation of future situations.

Good communication is critical to successful disaster response efforts. At times, communication among volunteers, government relief workers, government agencies and the Red Cross broke down. This resulted in extra field work and occasional missed opportunities to help victims. The importance of communication is often underestimated because people assume it will happen naturally. But the scale and scope of communication channels often demand more attention than anticipated.

The post-Katrina finger-pointing was almost as bad as the hurricane itself. Local, state and federal officials all blamed one another for not being prepared and not responding quickly enough. In contrast, the IT teams cooperated superbly and produced excellent results. Relief team members experienced strong camaraderie, were proud to be part of the efforts and described their participation as a deeply rewarding personal experience.

This column salutes the IT industry for reaching far beyond the walls of competition to serve the victims of a terrible disaster. Thank you all for your outstanding collaboration and for leveraging your expertise to make an important difference in so many lives.

Bart Perkins is managing partner at Louisville, Ky.-based Leverage Partners Inc., which helps organizations invest well in IT. He was previously CIO at Tricon Global Restaurants Inc. and Dole Food Co. Contact him at BartPerkins@ LeveragePartners.com.

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