Universities Hit by Katrina Tap Technologies To Stay Afloat

In spite of a lack of power, a hugely damaged telecom infrastructure, and increasingly explosive civil unrest, university staff and students in Louisiana are applying what technology they can use to communicate with each other and helping in the arduous process of rebuilding their state.

Molly Dorfman, a first-year medical student at New Orleans-based Tulane University (LA), says she has stayed in close touch with school friends through instant messenger, text messaging through cell phones, and posting to an unofficial Google group started by her class during the summer.

"It's been really helpful, because we needed to identify that we got all of our people out," Dorfman says.

LSU CIO Changes Course in Wake of Storm

Recently installed Louisiana State University CIO Brian Voss says he has suspended normal IT support activities, with the exception of administrative systems and computing functions that "run" the school. Currently, his staff is providing support to state and federal agencies, which are using the main campus in Baton Rouge as a staging area for rescue and clean-up operations.

"This help includes setting up telephone and data networking service, loaning equipment (laptops, computers, print/file servers, fax machines, etc.) and helping get those running and serving the various folks who need them," he wrote in an e-mail to Campus Technology. "On the information systems side, we're being called upon daily for quick-and-dirty applications to help in the gathering and sharing of information. This could include a quick 'Where is my LSU student' application we developed for our media services help line, to an application we're developing to help keep track of the patients moving in-and-out of the [Federal Emergency Management Agency/Health and Human Services] medical triage center that has been set up in the [Pete Maravich Assembly Center] basketball arena and nearby Field House. And, with a great many hurricane and coastal researchers on campus, we're providing extended [High Performance Computing] function, resources, and support to their post-Katrina analysis research."

At the same time, the tech team is reaching out to other campuses-particularly those in New Orleans-to provide IT capabilities. "We are working with IT folks from [the University of New Orleans] on providing them some IT capabilities. They've brought up a 'splash' homepage on a laptop, and we're working to bring back as much of their Web space as they brought with them. We're helping them start to recover their e-mail services, and looking at other, broader administrative applications that they might temporarily host out of our facilities."

He credits a capable IT staff "willing to be flexible and adapt to change" in coping with this "sudden shift" in mission.

Tulane Med Students Face Ordeal

Dorfman, who moved to New Orleans in July, lives in a first-floor apartment in the Central Business District, within blocks of her medical school campus. (Tulane has two campuses. The downtown campus, which encompasses Tulane University Hospital and borders Charity Hospital and University Hospital, run by Louisiana State University, took the brunt of damage. The campus uptown, which stayed relatively dry, has the undergraduate and law schools.) She and others were relying on long-time residents to guide their decision to stay in the city and ride out the storm. "I'm in a brick building. My building has stood for 150 years. I figured I'd be a little bit safer."

But on Saturday evening, when storm warnings suddenly increased Katrina to a Category 4 or 5 hurricane and the mayor began issuing evacuation orders, Dorfman and a friend decided to leave for Houston. They picked 2 am that same night as their departure time, when they thought traffic would be lighter. Then they parked her car on the top floor of a parking structure, packed hurriedly, made rush phone calls to locate a hotel in Houston with vacancies and headed out. Five hours later, they arrived safely. She has since flown home to Tustin, in suburban Orange County, Calif., just to "decompress for a couple of days and find out from various sources what is going to happen."

Missing Classmate

Her main concern: at least one classmate whom nobody has heard from yet. "Unfortunately, the only way to get a consistent communication with the city is to text message through cell phones," she explained. "And we don't have this person's cell phone; we only have his land line. So we don't know where he is, whether he's OK."

Dorfman continues to monitor the condition of her school and her neighborhood through multiple means. She tracks the emergency blog set up by Tulane officials at the school's site (www.tulane.edu)-which managed to stay up during through much of the hurricane and its aftermath for official word from president Scott Cowen about the state of the university and its affiliated hospitals.

Web sites and Blogs Help

"[School officials] have been amazing, for the way they've been in contact with us-and set up the Web site and a phone number for when the Web site went down," Dorfman says. "I've never been at a place where they've been so communicative at such a heightened time, when they have no electricity and they're concerned about their families."

To feed her need for additional information, she's also tuning into a multitude of blogs being updated by classmates, as well as the Web site run by the city's daily paper (www.nola.com), which is linking up people with missing friends and family members via discussion forums. And she's been following a blog that's beaming Webcam images of Poydras, a main street in her neighborhood, and hosting a running commentary by an employee of a New Orleans-based ISP ensconced in a business high rise that has been commandeered by rescue officials.

Dorfman has also been tapping several Web sites that are hosting composite Google maps marked to show, block by block, which buildings are still underwater, which ones have sustained major damage and which ones are still in good condition.

"Nola.com told us that my building pretty much is OK. The roof leaked and probably caved in in a couple of areas. And there was a secondary portion on the penthouses on the top floor that may have gotten blown off," Dorfman says. "But overall it seems to be in fair condition-as opposed to some people I know who have lost everything."

Hope for the Class of 2009

Now, she awaits word on where her class will be moved to or whether she'll be needed as a volunteer to help with relief efforts. Dorfman's hope is that the 154 people in the medical class of 2009 will be able to remain together, rather than being farmed out to one of the many schools that have offered invitations to students affected by Katrina.

As for New Orleans, she d'esn't believe it's gone forever-but she knows it'll never be the same. Except in one regard. Dorfman predicts that one day the city will celebrate "'K Day,' the day that Katrina hit."


Tulane University blog

Louisiana State University

"New Orleans Under Water," a Digital Globe image of the city

Survival of New Orleans Blog, with a link to the Poydras Street Webcam

The Times-Picayune Web site

Additional Hurricane Links:

Educause Hurricane Relief Community Exchangw

Blackboard is offering free ASP hosting for three-months to universities, colleges and K-12 schools impacted by Katrina. For information email: katrinarelief@blackboard.com

EDITOR'S ENDNOTE: Stay tuned for more on Emergency Management and Disaster Recovery in the November issue of CT.

(Photo courtesy NOAA)

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