A year after the deadliest U.S. hurricane in nearly eight decades, leaving an estimated 1,600 to 1,900 people dead in its wake, the American Red Cross says it has implemented new IT systems to respond to disasters of such gargantuan scale. They include an emergency assistance call center to handle up to 100,000 cases a day; a centralized national shelter system that gives governments, relief agencies, and others needed information to plan and manage shelters and evacuations; and a disaster welfare information system to inform families of the whereabouts of their loved ones.
Many of the organization's 600-member IT operations worked 12-hour days, six days a week, to get the systems ready for the 2006 hurricane season. With a $5 billion budget and 35,000 paid employees, the American Red Cross spends $200 million a year on IT.
Legacy systems supported Red Cross services for previous disasters, including the four hurricanes that struck Florida in 2004. In that period, the Red Cross assisted some 75,000 families and 156,000 people, handing out $35 million in aid. But those systems proved no match for Katrina. During that storm, the Red Cross assisted 1.3 million families and 4 million individuals, dispersing $2 billion in aid. It responded to the 2004 hurricanes with about 1,500 volunteers and staffers. With Katrina, the number of workers soared to 200,000.
The seat-of-pants solutions devised a year ago have become the foundation of some of the new systems being implemented today. Take, for instance, the call center. The Red Cross has relied on a virtual call center, in which a distributor routes calls to trained volunteers, some working in their living rooms, to provide disaster survivors with assistance. A typical call could take 45 minutes.
But the number of victims from Katrina overwhelmed that system. In the storm's aftermath, the Red Cross received a million calls a day from victims, but could handle no more than 3% of them at a time. "We can't operate that way," Red Cross CIO Steve Cooper says. "We can't say to someone in desperate need of service, 'Where are you, we'll call you back,' or put that person on hold."
Recognizing that the legacy call center staffed by volunteers can't handle a Katrina-like catastrophe, the Red Cross has retained Verizon to run a professionally managed call center. The plan calls for professional call center personnel to either resolve a problem in five to 10 minutes, or elevate it to the next level. The new call center, which is ready for deployment, will be used only for the biggest disasters. It can handle 1 million calls in 10 days and another 2 million calls in an additional five days.
Staffing remains a challenge. A disaster like Katrina would require 10,000 call agents to staff 4,000 seats around the clock to handle 100,000 cases a day. Cooper is asking businesses to see if their employees would volunteer to be trained as caseworkers for the worst-case-scenario storms. To link these workers with the call center, the Red Cross would ask its telecom providers--including AT&T, Sprint Nextel, and Verizon--to create a virtual network of networks. Cooper sees that type of network allowing the center to handle 10 million cases.
Because of the massive geographic scope of Katrina, another lesson learned was the need to centralize information about shelter availability, evacuation routes, and survivor whereabouts. Such information customarily had been stored and analyzed in a patchwork of systems operated by local, state, and federal government agencies with little interconnectivity. Based on integration technology called Tapestry from VisionLink, the Red Cross and the federal government jointly created the National Shelter System, which uses the Internet to give government agencies, relief organizations, and others access to information they need to plan and manage shelters and evacuees. The system identifies some 40,000 facilities that can be used as shelters, as well as the network of roads and transportation networks leading to and from them.