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Red Cross looks to IT for post-Katrina recovery

It moved satellite communications equipment into place before the hurricane hit

By Todd R. Weiss
August 29, 2005 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Katrina CoverageOnce Hurricane Katrina has taken a final swipe at Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, the American Red Cross will begin quickly deploying satellite communications and other IT systems in affected areas to help storm victims begin piecing their lives back together.
As the storm approached the Southern U.S. late last week, the Washington-based Red Cross began sending equipment and personnel to areas outside the storm's projected path so help could be brought in quickly after the winds and flooding subside. Katrina made landfall in Louisiana early this morning with sustained winds of 145 mph, but veered just enough to the east to spare New Orleans a direct blow. Even so, flooding, power outages and heavy damage to structures were reported throughout the region.
The Red Cross tomorrow expects to begin deploying a host of systems it will need, including satellite telephones, portable satellite dishes, specially equipped communications trucks, high- and low-band radio systems, and generator-powered wireless computer networks, said Jason Wiltrout, a Red Cross network engineer.
Nine specially designed Ford Excursion sport utility trucks, dubbed Emergency Communications Response Vehicles (ECRV), include various radio systems that allow communications on a wide range of frequencies across disaster areas, Wiltrout said. The vehicles haveVery Small Aperture Terminal generator-equipped satellite dishes that can help establish communications in the absence of working phone lines and cell phone towers.
Each of the ECRVs also has 10 voice-over-IP satellite phones and at least 10 wireless laptops, as well as a selection of portable, tripod-mounted satellite dishes used for communications after the storm's winds have eased.
Also awaiting deployment are IP-based fax machines and mobile servers built into shipping crate-like containers, Wiltrout said. Each two-crate server system includes a server, a Cisco Systems Inc. router, a Cisco switch, a keyboard and a monitor and will allow the agency to keep records on disaster victims who receive aid from Red Cross workers.

Martin Franke, executive director of chapter information systems at the Red Cross, said names, addresses and other information about victims will be collected using the laptops and then transmitted wirelessly via the portable servers to a central database running CRM applications from Siebel Systems Inc.
"It lets us give better service and better follow-up service" to victims because the records can be accessed later by any Red Cross worker from anywhere in the network, he said. "They're not going to have to tell [their] terrible stories once again" to get additional help at a later date.
Using the database, the agency can issue debit cards to victims to provide fixed amounts of emergency funds for housing,

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