Seen & Heard: After Katrina…
- By Katherine Grayson
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. —
Katherine Grayson is is a Los Angeles based freelance writer covering technology,
education, and business issues.