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Q&A: Tom Oreck on recovering from Katrina

Communications with its Mississippi manufacturing plant were out for two weeks

By Stephanie Overby
March 21, 2006 12:00 PM ET

CIO - Tom Oreck, CEO of vacuum manufacturing company Oreck Corp. in New Orleans, found himself facing a disaster recovery nightmare after Hurricane Katrina destroyed communications and left his IT staff in the dark.

Quick thinking and innovation allowed Oreck to restore operations within five days of the storm, but the lessons learned will be with the company for decades to come. The following are excerpts from an interview with Oreck.

What surprised you most about IT's role in the company's recovery after Hurricane Katrina? Communications was a major issue. That was a complete surprise. The first challenge we had was that we could not find people because the cell phone systems came down.

The cell phone systems, as far as I'm concerned, have a fundamental design flaw: Every call is routed back through your area code, and if those towers go down, your cell phone does not work. That's absurd in today's world. We ultimately found a lot of our employees through text messaging.

Katrina CoverageCell phones weren't the only problem. Having transferred our backup data software from New Orleans to our hot site in Boulder, and our call center from Long Beach, Miss., to Phoenix and Denver [per Oreck's disaster recovery plan], we were up and running again within five days. But we could not communicate with our Long Beach manufacturing site for 14 days. We expected that there would be problems with connectivity, but it was more of a hardship than we had recognized.

In the end, everything is -- like it or not -- linked. And so a breakdown anywhere in the system is a breakdown everywhere in the system.

How important was your relationship with suppliers and vendors in getting Oreck back online? IBM [which provides Oreck's data center services] provided support in areas that we never thought of and weren't even in our contract. For example, more than 250 of our employees lost their homes and all their possessions. IBM provided access to trauma [counselors]. They also helped us set up insurance and claims assistance for employees. It wasn't contractual. But we had a good working relationship with IBM before this happened, and this was an extension of that.

We also called on our relationship with UPS. We're a big customer. With no connectivity in our Long Beach facility, we could no longer distribute our own products. Mike Evanson, our VP of IT, and Candy Mauffray, our director of logistics, worked out a solution: UPS would truck in food and water to our employees in Mississippi and then leave with Oreck products that it could ship from its facility in Atlanta.

This story is reprinted from, an online resource for information executives. Story Copyright CXO Media Inc., 2012. All rights reserved.
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