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Seen & Heard: After Katrina…

A sobering look at people, process and tools.

In the days immediately after Hurricane Katrina devastated Gulf Coast cities and towns, I canvassed the area’s higher ed Web sites and hotlines, trying hard to pull my mind away from the human heartbreak and objectively assess the role of technology in the schools’ disaster responsiveness. What I found as I called the hotlines and scanned the Net for the Web sites of those hardest hit, was universal (and understandable) institutional shock, and varying degrees of rudimentary business continuity—where it existed.

At Tulane, as the university community prepared for the storm, President Scott Cowen explained via the campus Web site that the university was taking preventative measures by a) shutting down e-mail to “protect the equipment and allow restoration as early as possible,” and b) directing everyone to Tulane’s emergency Web site (housed off campus) and alert lines. Via the emergency site, he communicated over ensuing days as he and his staff evacuated from New Orleans to Houston, where power and Internet service would allow more frequent communications. The toll-free and local alert lines, when I called them, were non-functional.

At the University of New Orleans, campus Web site updates four days after the storm advised that the site would be the primary source of information. The university was establishing new office space and trying to restore computing systems, was the message at that time. In an open letter, Chancellor Tim Ryan explained that students would have the option of taking courses electronically for degree credit— an unforeseen benefit of eLearning.

For Southern University at New Orleans, a few lonely lines of text inhabited the space where the university Web site had existed, offering two hotline phone numbers: one for staff/faculty, the other for students (both out of the Baton Rouge campus). The faculty line worked; the student line was disconnected, although I discovered that those manning it were unaware of the problem. For the Louisiana Community & Technical College System, a 50-word message dated five days after Katrina made it clear that LCTCS was struggling to address problems and concerns. A Web site was under construction to “provide answers to your pressing questions,” the message advised; a central/eastern Louisiana telephone number was given for payroll, insurance, and benefits questions.

When I tried to find Xavier University of Louisiana and Loyola University of New Orleans on the Web, ominously, the sites would not load. I found myself wishing for an annoying “Site Under Construction” message—anything, to indicate that life existed somewhere for the Xavier and Loyola university communities.

That brings me to the sobering view of campus technology that many of us now have, post Katrina. On the heels of a decade of technology-as-panacea spending, it seems that process (continuity/ redundancy/catastrophe planning) must come before the tools. And people must come ahead of the process. In the end, it is humans who manage the process and make the choices that may end up being life-and-death decisions, and who are ultimately the beneficiaries or victims of those decisions. I know I’ve buried my lead beyond comprehension, but I now see that the phrase “people, process, and tools” was constructed in that order for a reason. Little could have blocked the physical devastation of Katrina; our manmade technologies—communications systems, utilities, even levees—were matchsticks in the wake of 150-mph winds. But the acceptance of our technological vulnerability, and our ability to set human process in motion to combat it, is what we have to work with. —

About the Author

Katherine Grayson is is a Los Angeles based freelance writer covering technology, education, and business issues.

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