For Campus IT: Early Lessons From Katrina

Planning For The Next Katrina May Not Be As Useful As Developing IT Flexibility

Disaster planning will undoubtedly be a hot topic for campus IT, following Katrina. What lessons can be learned? What can be done differently? Is it possible to be prepared for every contingency?

Some lessons may be fairly obvious. Coming up with better plans and being able to execute them may take more time. We hope our readers will share experiences and ideas on our “Disaster Planning and Recovery” online forum. To add your views and insights, click here. To begin, here are a few preliminary thoughts about what we’ve learned from Katrina so far.

One of the first lessons from Katrina is that if you don’t have electrical power, you don’t have IT. At least, not for very long. A disaster of this magnitude can quickly erase all the technological progress of the past century. When even back-up generators failed, nurses at New Orleans hospitals were left trying to operate ventilators by hand to keep patients alive.

Without electricity, every gadget from iPod to super computer becomes a boat anchor. The portable hardware we enjoy, our laptops, cell phones and PDAs, are relatively short lived. When you go a week or more without access to a working electrical outlet, where are you going to recharge? Generators are good backups, but most are not designed to run underwater, and sooner or later fuel stockpiles run out. Even gadgets that run on common AA and AAA batteries will eventually exhaust most supplies, unless you stock as many alkaline batters as a WalMart warehouse.

It’s easy to imagine a campus IT department cut off from electricity by disaster where the only device still working is a solar-powered calculator. All this may be an argument for solar energy that g'es beyond the obvious environmental benefits. After all, the sun will come up tomorrow, even after a hurricane. Studying alternative energy sources may not be just an academic exercise in Big Science.

Brian Voss, who left Indiana University this past year to take the position of CIO at Louisiana State University, found one of his biggest new job challenges was coping with Katrina. Flexibility quickly became his motto. He told Campus Technology (see “Universities Hit by Katrina Tap Technologies To Stay Afloat”) that since the hurricane struck he has suspended normal IT activity and is concentrating on “quick-and dirty applications” to do needful things such as helping parents locate their LSU students.

The flexibility of humans and their brains is said to be the key to our Darwinian survival, at least in the geological short term since we forced the Neanderthals into extinction. The ability of a campus IT department to isolate and assess the problems in a disaster and come up with solutions on the fly may be the best disaster plan.

In the past week, this has been the experience of Sascha Meinrath of the Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network. Explaining the group’s efforts to restore wireless in areas impacted by Katrina, Meinrath told Wired News: “We have a breakdown in many of the things that people rely on to deploy these systems, and then we have people whose expertise is in rubber-banding and bubble-gum-sticking and pulling together things with whatever's at hand. That's very much what we need right now--people with that level of improvisation and expertise."

Disasters on the scale of Katrina do not occur frequently enough for past experience to be much of a guide or help. This is especially true with events like the so-called Hundred Year Storm. Experience may be the best teacher but human experience rarely spans 100 years. The last hurricane and flood to destroy a US city was the one that hit Galveston, TX in 1900. While that storm, which killed 8,000 people, has been well documented in books and film, it is beyond the living memory of all but a few centenarians. It is possible that today’s kindergarteners will be lucky enough to mark their 100th birthdays without ever seeing another hurricane and flood on the devastating scale of Katrina.

Also, rigidly detailed disaster plans based on past experience are not always helpful because disasters do not follow neatly scripted scenarios. Every disaster, human or man-made, is a unique historic event. Armies historically come to grief because their generals hatched plans to fight the last war and didn’t anticipate the tactics of the new one. The infantry maneuvers of the Napoleonic Wars, for instance, were of little use against the machine guns of World War I. To spend a great deal of time planning for the next Katrina might be an interesting intellectual exercise but it may not be as useful as simply building flexibility into an IT organization and where possible into the hardware and software, as well.

Off-site Back-up
As it happens, most disasters, with the possible exception of the end of the world, are local. An earthquake could potentially level San Francisco again, but computer rooms as near as Sacramento or Los Angeles might be completely unaffected. With Katrina, Houston has proved a safe haven even though devastated New Orleans is only 500 miles away.

While it may not make sense to run a campus IT operation from Bangalore, India, it may be prudent to investigate off-site data storage and even setting up back-up Websites at off-site locations. This would support uninterrupted access to critical Web applications, including those that help administrators, parents and students locate one another. It may not be wise to have all campus IT hardware and software in one geographic location.

Add Your Thoughts

These are only a few thoughts on what we are learning from this disaster. Planning based on Katrina will be an ongoing project for Campus IT. Please share your ideas and experiences, including your experience with Katrina, on our “Disaster Planning and Recovery” online forum. To add your thoughts and insights, click here.

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