HUD, other agencies worked around Katrina's telecom conundrum

It's no surprise that the scale of destruction from Hurricane Katrina exceeded every agency's worst-case predictions. What might be surprising is that some IT and communications systems actually managed to keep up, albeit with difficulty.

For the Housing and Urban Development Department, communications was the toughest issue, according to CIO Lisa Schlosser.

'We relied on BlackBerrys. I became the BlackBerry goddess for the federal government,' Schlosser said, referring to the ubiquitous wireless e-mail devices from Research In Motion Ltd. of Waterloo, Ontario.

Speaking at a recent meeting of Women in Technology in McLean, Va., Schlosser said she and other officials were pleased with how quickly the telecommunications carriers were able to get up and running in the hurricane environs.

For ongoing casework, Schlosser said HUD workers will use notebook computers equipped with Verizon wireless cards.

She also praised the continuity-of-operations plans for the Agriculture Department's National Finance Center in New Orleans, where HUD payroll processing is done. Although the facility was flooded, backup operations meant 'they didn't miss a beat,' Schlosser said.

HUD's ability to get housing assistance to deserving people is enhanced by an initiative finished just before Katrina hit, Schlosser said.

Caseworkers have been receiving an online feed of applicants' income data from the Health and Human Services Department. This, she said, helps ensure that money for Katrina housing initiatives only goes to those eligible.

For American Red Cross officials, the Gulf Coast aftermath nearly swamped the organization's IT support systems. C. Annette Gumm, who di- rects the Red Cross's IT support, said that with help from a variety of companies, the Red Cross within days:
  • Boosted its Web capabilities to 130 page views per second

  • Raised its bandwidth from T3 to OC-3

  • Added nine online servers to its existing two

  • Handled 1.3 million cases on a case management system designed to handle 100,000

  • Took in a million phone calls per day.

The phone calls resulted in only 16,000 cases, Gumm said. That's because while setting up a case only takes minutes, many calls lasted longer, some 45 minutes.

'People wanted to tell their stories,' Gumm said, and not merely give
basic information. Even as busy signals greeted most callers, completed circuits stayed open for a day as lines of people used a connection successively, Gumm said.

He noted the Red Cross was able to accept donations of services from companies such as Akamai Technologies Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., Yahoo Inc. and Western Union.

By contrast, the federal government cannot accept free goods, Schlosser said, although several vendors offered to donate equipment.

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