Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Thoughts from a Katrina relief worker

Doc Searls asked how does IT help with Katrina recovery? My answer: mostly by putting IT aside and doing what needs to be done.

Sure, if you are in IT operations, you do everything you can to restore communications and data for the affected area, but in a large IT organization, there are a lot of people who don't have direct operational responsibility.

My company and our customers were ravaged by Katrina. Many employees had no house to go back to, and many more had homes that had suffered significant damage. When I was offered the opportunity to help salvage what I could for our affected employees, I went for it. As important as IT planning and architecture is, it certainly wasn't as urgent as helping out storm victims.

So what did I do for most of a week? I was part of crew of ten folks from throughout our company, five of whom are in IT. We tarped roofs to prevent further water damage. We removed drenched carpet and tile, ruined furniture and appliances, and anything else that fell victim to the incredible storm surge. Anything above the water line, we boxed up and moved to storage. We even moved some wood furniture that had been treated for mold and other badness to storage for one family.

There were definitely some grim moments. On the way to tarp a roof near Ocean Springs, we passed several houses with a red X on the door or the roof, indicated that someone had died in the house. We worked on a house in Pass Christian that was on a rise about ten feet above the bayou, and sat on concrete pilings ten feet tall. The waterline in the house was two feet. We sat on the back deck of the house eating lunch, imagining the storm surge that had brought water to our knee level, 22 feet up, stretching out over the vastness of the bayou.

On the whole, though, it was a very positive experience. It was a lot of hard work in very hot and humid conditions, but it was great to something tangible to help.

Being geeks, technology did play a role beyond basic communications. Base camp had a satellite link, through which they'd try to generate maps and driving directions for us. One evening we received a faulty address for an employee. So we fired up a laptop, established a s-l-o-w cellular data connection, accessed our customer information system, found the correct address for the employee, and then mapped it and provided driving directions. Our non-IT team lead was duly impressed.

So, what can IT do to help? For Katrina, realize that often the most important thing you can do is the hard physical labor of helping salvage homes and possessions. For the future, design redundancy into your infrastructure -- multiple fiber paths, geographically dispersed and backed up data and applications, microwave shots, cell on wheels, satellite trucks, wi-max, and whatever else so that will facilitate critical communications and data access.

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