Hurricane Sandy: Katrina’s Loud Echo

Six and a half years ago I traveled down to post-Katrina New Orleans to write a feature story for Redmond Magazine titled Storm Warning. The article looked at the impact that Hurricane Katrina had on the IT infrastructure of New Orleans and surrounding Jefferson Parish, and detailed the extraordinary efforts of the people tasked with managing and recovering those assets before, during and after the devastating storm.

As the northeast of the United States wakes up this morning to the profound and ongoing devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy, I am reminded of the lessons learned in those desperate days after Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005.

At Tulane University, dedicated professionals like Tim Deeves (director of networking services) and Rick McGinity (then director of operating system and database services) rushed into New Orleans when others had fled, to recover mission-critical data and resources from the school’s downtown IT facilities just before and after the storm. As Paul Barron, then interim CIO of Tulane University told me at the time: "During the first 60 days, it was unclear if Tulane was going to survive or not."

The efforts of people like Deeves and McGinity helped ensure that the school would indeed be able to resume operations in the wake of the storm. And from the barrier islands of North Carolina to the rocky shores of Maine, millions of people face the same existential challenge that Barron did in the summer of 2005. In Manhattan, power is out (and could be for days) below 39th street on the east side and 31st street on the west side. Portions of the subway system and many of the tunnels linking Manhattan to the rest of the world are inundated, and all three major area airports are closed.

What is happening in Manhattan is being played out over a thousand mile stretch of densely populated coast. From flooding along the Potomac to heavy snows in the mountains of West Virginia to blocked roads and downed power lines throughout the region, the enormity of the event eludes grasp.

If Katrina is any guide, we will face plenty of setbacks and reversals in the weeks and months to come. In New Orleans, the deep and sustained floodwaters of Katrina smashed the convenient assumptions of local disaster planners, who did not count on losing access to large swaths of the area for weeks after the storm. Hurricanes, they thought, were a three day event: You evacuate, you wait, and you return. But Katrina left precious little to return to. The geography of the area turned parts of New Orleans into an inland sea, submerging roads and making recovery of power and communication resources impossible.

The ferocity of Katrina’s winds, likewise, betrayed assumption. Wind and wave monitoring equipment failed throughout the area as poles snapped, batteries failed and sensors submerged. Vital communication links, like the repeater antenna on the Galleria Building in Metairie, succumbed to the winds and left emergency crews on the north side of the Mississippi River without a link to the Jefferson Parish Emergency Operating Center. Without landline and cell phone service, some parishes were unable to reach the outside world at all. As I wrote in that article, Katrina pulled down the entire infrastructure of the greater New Orleans area.

Today, in New York City, in Atlantic City, along the Delmarva peninsula, I expect we will see the same tales of catastrophic failure. And as in New Orleans, we will be forced to challenge our own assumptions. This morning, for instance, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo talked about building levees to help New York weather future storm events. All of a sudden, that seems like a very obvious idea.

At the end of the day, the lessons of Katrina came down to the people -- like Deeves and McGinity -- who struggled in her wake. It came down to people like Tom Rodrigue, emergency coordinator for Jefferson Parish, who stayed on the job despite knowing that his 92-year-old mother was trapped (and presumed dead) in the St. Rita’s nursing home in devastated St. Bernard Parish. Thirty five residents, including Rodrigue’s mother, perished at the facility. It came down to Walt Barowka, a Jefferson Parish contractor who recruited a group of strangers to help him haul equipment out of a stricken data center building. It came down to Carolyn Capdeville, a coordinator for emergency management in Jefferson Parish, who helped set up a system of runners to relay messages around the parish when all other communications had failed.

As Capdeville told me at the time: "It's not the technology that saves anybody, it's the people who use the technology. That is missed a lot of times, the human part of this."