Government agencies ride out the storm

In the aftermath of the storm, Homeland Security teams continued to staff a crisis center to make sure government agencies in Isabel's path had access to any services they needed.

Max Everett

Hurricane Isabel caused power outages and flooding when it slammed through the Washington area earlier this month, but federal agencies' IT systems stayed connected.

The storm put agencies' emergency plans and backup systems to the test. With plenty of warning, IT staff members at many agencies hunkered down in crisis centers to resuscitate any systems that failed. But most federal officials reported few IT problems.

The Homeland Security Department weathered Hurricane Isabel, the department's first major disaster, without serious damage to its IT facilities, DHS officials said.

State and local IT agencies worked quickly to restore services in the aftermath of the storm, but in many cases their disaster plans assured service continuity throughout the hurricane.

At DHS headquarters, in the hours before the storm made landfall, CIO Steve Cooper described how the department had activated a crisis assessment team, or CAT, to keep systems online. The department augmented the team with officials who have expertise in dealing with hurricanes.

'In addition to this, FEMA has activated all its emergency operations personnel and centers because they are our lead directorate for an event like a hurricane,' Cooper said.

During the storm, which caused dozens of deaths, widespread flooding and power outages affecting millions, DHS' Homeland Security Operations Center functioned around the clock.

As part of the CAT's function, the operations center stayed in touch with the 15 information sharing and analysis centers (ISACs) that monitor the nation's critical infrastructures, including the electricity, telecommunications, water and transportation services.

'We maintained 24-7 operation,' said Steve Barrett, spokesman for the department's National Communications System, which serves as the telecommunications ISAC.

The Veterans Affairs Department faced an unusual challenge. One of its computer centers is two stories below ground, so VA established a team to stay there into the weekend equipped with sleeping bags, cots, food and cell phones, in case of technical problems and flooding.

'These five people, three senior team leaders from the CIO's office and two employee volunteers, were unsung heroes,' VA acting CIO Edward Meagher said.

VA deployed a crisis response team, made up of Meagher and a senior IT representative from each of the administrative units, to one of its backup sites in West Virginia to run the department's computer systems if necessary.

VA hospitals in the storm's path, including near the Outer Banks, N.C., and Richmond, Va., used backup generators to keep the hospitals and their IT systems working when they lost commercial power.

Back up, then back up

The Transportation Department automatically backed up all critical systems to a location outside Washington, Transportation spokesman Bill Mosley said.

The Education Department deployed contract staff to its Atlanta backup site in case they were needed, CIO William Leidinger said. He also sent help desk contractors to Atlanta and used help desk contractors in Kansas City, Mo., to maintain full operations nationwide during and after the storm.

The Housing and Urban Development Department's data centers in Lanham, Md., and Reston, Va., were both equipped with backup diesel generators in case of loss of electrical power, HUD spokesman Michael Fluharty said. Neither data center lost power during the storm nor was there any disruption to the telecommunications network or general IT infrastructure.

At the local level, government IT managers deployed resources to restore services shattered by the storm. 'My crews were working all weekend,' said Alisoun Moore, CIO for Montgomery County, Md. 'The emergency facilities were up because they all have backup generators.'

'The biggest hit for us was the power being out,' she said. 'Basically it meant that our network connectivity was down for basic business communications.'

County workers had all but about six of some 150 county facilities connected to its network over the weekend after the storm. 'Some of them do have power, but we have had to reset the equipment,' Moore said.

In Virginia, Judy Napier, assistant secretary of technology for the Virginia Information Technologies Agency, said, 'We were very prepared, and we had absolutely no business continuity issues whatever.'

VITA had stationed a technical team to operate out of a hotel in Richmond. 'But it wasn't needed because we didn't have power down' at VITA's Richmond headquarters, Napier said. Even VITA facilities in hard-hit areas such as Fairfax County, Va., continued functioning, she said.

In North Carolina, the state's Office of Information Technology Services activated its business continuity plan before the storm struck, said Ann Garrett, chief information security officer.

The state hired SunGard Availability Services of Wayne, Pa., to help maintain operations, Garrett said.

'When we knew the hurricane was coming, we activated a plan to make sure we had current backups of the information in our data center in Raleigh,' she said.

OITS runs the state's network backbone, which provides connectivity to all state agencies and many local governments as well.

Many local agencies on the network that were in the path of the hurricane and did not have to remain online voluntarily powered down, Garrett said.

'We found there was an orderly pattern of reconnection as the power came back, except for a very few sites in worst-damaged areas, such as the Outer Banks,' she said. 'Actually, it proved that it pays to be prepared and to have a business continuity plan in place.'

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