Hard Rock Hotel & Casino

Cell tower damage in Katrina's wake left many people disconnected. The casino's plans now call for a specified meeting place for decision-makers.

Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Biloxi, Miss., was two days shy of its grand opening when company executives realized that their first guest would be an unwelcome one. Hurricane Katrina was barreling toward the Gulf Coast town and would pound the casino before the doors had even opened to the public.

The killer storm, which made landfall in Louisiana and Mississippi on Monday, Aug. 29, 2005, caused $148 million in damage to the Hard Rock. Hit hard were the entertainment behemoth's brand-new gaming facilities, which floated fully exposed on a pair of barges in order to satisfy offshore gambling laws. While some IT assets bobbed alongside banks of slot machines on the barges, the main server room was in an office building on land. Yet that equipment proved just as vulnerable in the face of a 30-foot storm surge that caused the Hard Rock to suffer a huge loss.

Equipment located in the casino structure and on the first two floors of the building was lost. And although the main server room was spared, the floor was covered with six inches of standing water.

Looking back on the devastation with no shortage of "Katrina fatigue," Hard Rock executives stand by the plan that kicked into action as the entire area braced for the hurricane. "When we received word that we were in the path of the storm, we immediately began our disaster recovery preparations while continuing to make arrangements to open in a few days," recalls John Murphy, vice president and CIO. "It was quite a weekend."

It was a weekend that entailed some final touches on a pristine architecture, but it was also a weekend marked by updates to the company's "hurricane hotline" and redoubled efforts to make sure sufficient backup tapes and other disaster recovery provisions were on hand, Murphy says.

"We recovered very quickly" from an IT perspective, says Rob Weir, director of technology. "Within two days, we had critical servers back online and were able to process payroll."

"If a similar event were to happen today, we would react in much the same way. We did a lot of things right, but some things we just were not prepared for," says Weir. Among other things, the Hard Rock staffers didn't expect the storm to cause as much damage as it did -- especially to the local communications infrastructure. "Cell towers had been heavily damaged, so communicating was accomplished strictly through text messaging and only after several days of total outages," says Weir.

As a result, the Hard Rock has changed its plans for deploying personnel if it faces another disaster, says Murphy. "We plan to have an assessment team meet immediately at a specified time and place to determine the extent of the damage and the best course of action. Additionally, we all carry car chargers for our cell phones," he says, noting that employees faced a lack of batteries and power.

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The Biloxi Hard Rock suffered severe damage just days before its grand opening.
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