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by Paul Kerstein

Red Cross Looks to IT For Post-Katrina Recovery

News
Aug 30, 20055 mins
CSO and CISOData and Information Security

IDG News Service reports that once Hurricane Katrina has taken a finalswipe at Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, the American Red Crosswill begin quickly deploying satellite communications and other ITsystems in affected areas to help storm victims begin piecing theirlives back together.

As the storm approached the Southern U.S. late last week, theWashington-based Red Cross began sending equipment and personnel toareas outside the storm’s projected path so help could be brought inquickly after the winds and flooding subside. Katrina made landfall inLouisiana early this morning with sustained winds of 145 mph, butveered just enough to the east to spare New Orleans a direct blow. Evenso, flooding, power outages and heavy damage to structures werereported throughout the region.

The Red Cross tomorrow expects to begin deploying a host of systems itwill need, including satellite telephones, portable satellite dishes,specially equipped communications trucks, high- and low-band radiosystems, and generator-powered wireless computer networks, said JasonWiltrout, a Red Cross network engineer.

Nine specially designed Ford Excursion sport utility trucks, dubbedEmergency Communications Response Vehicles (ECRV), include variousradio systems that allow communications on a wide range of frequenciesacross disaster areas, Wiltrout said. The vehicles haveVery SmallAperture Terminal generator-equipped satellite dishes that can helpestablish communications in the absence of working phone lines and cellphone towers.

Each of the ECRVs also has 10 voice-over-IP satellite phones and atleast 10 wireless laptops, as well as a selection of portable,tripod-mounted satellite dishes used for communications after thestorm’s winds have eased.

Also awaiting deployment are IP-based fax machines and mobile serversbuilt into shipping crate-like containers, Wiltrout said. Eachtwo-crate server system includes a server, a Cisco Systems Inc. router,a Cisco switch, a keyboard and a monitor and will allow the agency tokeep records on disaster victims who receive aid from Red Crossworkers.

Martin Franke, executive director of chapter information systems at theRed Cross, said names, addresses and other information about victimswill be collected using the laptops and then transmitted wirelessly viathe portable servers to a central database running CRM applicationsfrom Siebel Systems Inc.

“It lets us give better service and better follow-up service” tovictims because the records can be accessed later by any Red Crossworker from anywhere in the network, he said. “They’re not going tohave to tell [their] terrible stories once again” to get additionalhelp at a later date.

Using the database, the agency can issue debit cards to victims toprovide fixed amounts of emergency funds for housing, clothing, foodand other essentials, Franke said.

The Red Cross is prepared to help what could be several hundredthousand victims of the hurricane, said Steve Cooper, the agency’s newCIO. “We’re preparing for the worst and hoping for the best,” he said.So far, about 2,900 Red Cross staff members and volunteers have beendeployed to assist in the hardest hit regions of New Orleans and inBiloxi and Gulfport, Miss., he said.

Paul Burke, the owner of PBI, a small medical IT networks company inLouisville, Ohio, arrived early Sunday at the Red Cross’ Falls Church,Va., operations center to help run the network for the disasterresponse team. Burke is the relief agency’s network operationssupervisor and will help maintain and run its satellite communicationssystem for the next several weeks. He closed his own company so hecould help storm victims and said volunteers will do whatever is neededto keep the disaster recovery operations on track.

“Sometimes we have to take baling twine and chicken wire to make it work,” he said.

Businesses worked before the storm’s arrival to protect data and facilities.

David Sjolander, vice president of hotel systems at Minneapolis-basedCarlson Hospitality Group Inc., said a 1-year-old Country Inn &Suites hotel on Magazine Street in New Orleans was closed and boardedup Sunday as the storm approached. Most key IT systems, includingservers, are one story up, on the mezzanine floor of the 155-room hotel– apparently safe from flood waters. Other equipment on the groundfloor was moved upstairs to prevent damage, he said.

Data backups were done and moved off-site before the storm arrived, hesaid, and a corporate IT worker is on standby to fly to New Orleans toassist in recovery efforts, he said. The hotel is near the city’sFrench Quarter, Harrah’s Casino and the Ernest N. Morial ConventionCenter and was created out of seven historic buildings dating to the1860s.

Jim Medeiros, vice president of shared services for Atlanta-basedUnited Parcel Service Inc., said his company’s meteorological team hadbeen tracking Katrina since early last week and was able to planshutdowns of some of its package sorting facilities in the storm’spath. UPS has data centers in Atlanta and Mahwah, N.J., as well as1,000 package sorting facilities around the country where operationscan be rerouted in the event of natural disasters, he said. So far, thecompany hasn’t received damage reports about its facilities inKatrina’s path.

“With this storm, I don’t think that any building will have no damage,” Medeiros said.

As for the Red Cross, Cooper said that with disaster recoveryoperations beginning, the group is seeking donations to help hurricanevictims. “This is a time when we rely heavily on the generosity of allAmericans,” he said.

Information on how to volunteer to help the Red Cross IT operations –or to donate money to hurricane relief efforts — is available on theagency’s Web site, www.redcross.org/donate/donate.html.

By Todd R. Weiss