05:48 PM

Wal-Mart CIO: Hurricane Charlie Paved Way For Katrina Response

Wal-Mart applied lessons learned from past disasters for its reaction to Hurricane Katrina. But it still needed to improvise.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. had learned its lesson. Before Hurricane Katrina hit, Wal-Mart had dealt with Hurricane Charlie. Alarmed by its lack of visibility into the state of some stores during that storm, it created a new approach to disasters that paid off during the even more catastrophic Katrina.

Wal-Mart CIO Linda Dillman, speaking at InformationWeek's Fall Conference on Monday, told the story of how the company's IT team reacted to the disaster and how its previous experiences helped shape its response.

Download a 9 MB audio file to listen to a 12-minute Q&A with Wal-Mart CIO Linda Dillman.

When Hurricane Charlie hit Florida last year, Dillman was alarmed by the lack of visibility into affected stores. It was the first time Dillman realized the extent to which the Information Systems Division could lose visibility into the damage at stores and whereabouts of employees in affected areas. It was Wal-Mart's wake-up call to get better prepared to track lost power, network coverage, and cellular phone communications after a disaster strikes.

Before Katrina, Wal-Mart had built what it calls an emergency operations center designed to allow--even force--employees from different departments to work in close proximity during a disaster. Katrina put it to the test. By having people work in the operations center, it let people from multiple parts of the company make decisions and set priorities on what tasks and systems were most important. "When you go through a crisis similar to Hurricane Katrina, the pharmacy system is as critical as anything else we'll do," Dillman said.

Wal-Mart also utilized a dashboard system developed for the operations center that gives the company the visibility it lacked--showing each store's damage, whether employees were at risk or injured, and if the store has communications platforms running and whether they're running on landlines or satellite systems or utility or generator power.

Despite its planning, Wal-Mart's IT team had to improvise as well. Employees set up mobile pharmacies facilities to fill prescriptions for people dislocated by the storm, and Wal-Mart needed to connect those to a group of pharmacists at Wal-Mart's Bentonville, Ark., headquarters to fill prescriptions, because the demand at those mobile sites was so high, Dillman said.

Wal-Mart also set up emergency lines for employees to call in, trying to account for all its employees and connect them to family members. Calls quickly exceeded 2,500 daily, swamping the existing call center and forcing the IT team to build a new one in a few hours. Wal-Mart also launched a Web site where employees and others in the affected area can post messages to friends and family. When it proved popular, the company expanded it for use by nonemployees. Said Dillman, "There have been 40,000 messages posted and more than 2 million hits to the site."

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