F.A. Richard & Associates Inc.

Since Katrina wreaked havoc on its telecommunications system, this insurance firm now reroutes toll-free numbers on its own.

David Richard, vice president of IT, was pleased with his team's recovery response after Hurricane Katrina ravaged F.A. Richard & Associates Inc. (FARA) in Mandeville, La. The August 2005 disaster displaced 500 workers and uprooted operations to Baton Rouge -- about 70 miles west.

Uninterrupted business operations are very important to this insurance services firm, and employees were able to access critical applications through the Internet. FARA's main systems were up and running from Baton Rouge in one day.

Yet communication proved to be the bigger challenge. Cell phones wouldn't work, partly because they all had the same area code. "Our original plan didn't anticipate that," Richard explains. Luckily, the company's toll-free number stayed up, but the business's e-mail service had gone down. "The server was working, but we had dual ISPs and lost both of them," Richard says.

So after Katrina, FARA arranged to take control of its communications in emergencies. "Under extreme circumstances, we just can't assume [phone and Internet service providers] were going to be there and get to it right away," Richard notes. "Where would we stand in the line?"

So the company bought a second server for its data center in addition to the main server in its corporate office. Now, FARA can make DNS changes to redirect SMTP-type traffic to the second server. "E-mail is a mission-critical application for us," says Richard.

FARA also arranged to handle the rerouting of its toll-free phone services on its own during emergencies. "Prior to Katrina, we called upon our vendors to make routing changes to our 800-number services, our toll-free inbound," Richard explains. "Since Katrina, we wanted more control. So if a vendor didn't answer the phone, we still wanted to make those changes." FARA's long-distance carrier set up a Web-based system that it can use to redirect its own toll-free lines. Read columnist Mark Hall's thoughts on emergency communication systems.

The team has also signed up with various cell phone providers using multiple area codes.

Communication with customers who receive benefits payments also had to be reconsidered. FARA prints and mails compensation benefits checks to thousands of injured workers. Richard hadn't anticipated that postal service would stop for weeks following Katrina.

"We had to figure out how to find these people and get their money to them," Richard says. The company turned to Western Union and wired money to customers using code numbers to verify their identities.

Today, FARA offers Automated Clearing House direct-deposit service to people with bank accounts.

As the disaster unfolded over weeks and months, the mass exodus from New Orleans to cities like Baton Rouge and Houston created traffic and housing problems. So FARA executives decided to look northward.

"Nashville had the most hotel rooms available and [was] the least-talked-about destination for our local evacuee population," says Richard. "Going forward, we've expanded our Nashville office to accommodate essential teams. Everyone knows that's where you should go."

Some IT staffers will still travel to the Baton Rouge data center, but Nashville will accommodate the most employees and their families. "We've identified vets, kennels, everything, as well as different routes to get there by car," Richard says.

FARA also purchased a mobile response unit for its property claims management services operation. The air-conditioned vehicle sports a satellite dish and supports VoIP, fax and Internet connectivity. It also has an office with a kitchen.

"It's ready to hit the road and go into affected areas and provide specific insurance services," Richard says.

With remote access to Web applications, communications control and efficient disaster-recovery centers in place, Richard says FARA is ready for any disaster.

"Our industry is talking about pandemics -- how would we deal with not just natural disasters, but these other types of disasters," Richard says. "If we have control, we could do this ourselves."

Collett is a Computerworld contributing writer. Contact her at Stcollett@aol.com.

NEXT: Hard Rock Casino's building slammed by Katrina days before grand opening

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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