IT disaster recovery experts describe scenes 'like a nuclear explosion' and detail on-the-ground recovery and resilience operations in the wake of September’s record-breaking Hurricane Ian.

Richard Pallardy, Freelance Writer

November 15, 2022

8 Min Read
3D illustration of Hurricane Ian from space
Space view of Hurricane Ian in Florida, US. (3-D illustration)Benny Marty via Alamy Stock

In late September, Hurricane Ian ravaged the Caribbean and the southeastern United States -- particularly southwest Florida and the Carolinas. The Category 4 hurricane was among the strongest to have ever hit the continental US. Catastrophic infrastructural damage resulted from high winds and massive rainfall. More than 100 people died as a result of the storm (with the exact figure still unknown).

IT infrastructure was heavily impacted -- some four million people in Florida and one million people in the Carolinas were left without power. According to the FCC, 444 cell sites in Florida were taken down by the storm, largely due to electricity outages. And five more were taken offline in South Carolina. In the immediate aftermath, nearly half a million cable, phone, internet, and television subscribers were also without service in Florida along with another 10,000 in South Carolina.

We spoke with recovery experts from Verizon, Accela, and Sedgwick, who shared details on how IT providers and their partners are restoring service and assisting relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian.

The Immediate Aftermath

Before the damage to IT infrastructure could be dealt with, more fundamental issues had to be addressed. Storm surges and high winds had caused extensive damage to roads and bridges, causing major transportation difficulties. Sections of major arteries such as I-75 and US 41 were closed for days. And islands remained cut off from the mainland for even longer.

“One thing that really set Ian apart for me was the destruction of bridges and the chaos that brought on,” says Nathaniel Cochrane, senior building consultant for technology-enabled risk, benefits, and integrated business solutions company Sedgwick. Cochrane, a North Carolina resident, worked on the company’s response in Florida. “Every storm brings in terrible traffic on roads as flooding recedes and roads are washed away. I’ve never worked on a storm where the Department of Transportation had to repair or rebuild so many main causeways.”

“When I went down there, it looked like a bomb went off,” concurs Cory Davis, assistant vice president for Verizon Frontline. “It looked like a nuclear explosion. Everything was completely leveled. The storm surge brought the beach five miles inland. Everything was buried.”

As floodwaters receded and damaged thoroughfares were repaired, the next priority was restoring power. Many of the IT outages were due to failures in the power grid.

“Getting electricity was vital for the Floridians affected by the storm,” Cochrane says.

As the state struggled to get the grid back online, generators served as a valuable stopgap. Fleets of generator trucks descended on the region -- along with fuel trucks to keep them running.

Among them were vehicles belonging to Verizon Frontline.

“The storm caused issues with our partners, like the cable providers that provide the fiber backhaul to some of these macro sites,” Davis explains. “We had to find another backhaul solution. We brought in over 100 assets. Some are what we call GOATs -- generators on a trailer -- to provide commercial power where commercial power went down.”

These were accompanied by what Davis refers to as an entire barnyard of other mobile technological apparatus -- COWs (cell on wheels), COLTs (cell on light trucks), and STEERs (satellite trailer emitting equipment remote). The team also launched a tethered drone over Sanibel Island, which had been cut off from the mainland when portions of the causeway were damaged. The drone, equipped with a cellular node, provided temporary cellular service with a radius of five to seven miles. Additional drones were stationed over Cape Coral and Fort Myers.

“Network service provider outages make it difficult to communicate. After Katrina, cell service was unavailable in some areas for weeks. Hurricane Irma left the US Virgin Islands without cell services for two weeks,” recalls Amber D'Ottavio, vice president of product management at Accela, a company that provides cloud solutions to government entities. “Even with recent advancements, Ian left many residents without cell service for days. With such a reliance on internet and cell service, this kind of disruption further slows the recovery process.”

The initial goal, Davis says, was to facilitate communication capabilities for first responders, who rescued some 2,500 people across Florida in the days following the hurricane.

“Everything's highly data-intensive,” he observes. “Photos, drone imagery, site assessment -- all that information had to get pushed uphill. So, it was important that they had the capacity needed to make that happen.”

“Our phones and ability to hotspot from our phones are a vital part of everyday life -- especially for those of us trying to help here in the field in the immediate aftermath,” Cochrane adds.

Davis is particularly proud of another deployment over Fort Myers. Known as a mobile earth orbit business incorporative on-board nomadic deployable, the MEO BISON satellite provides lower latency than more commonly used geostationary satellites.

“Geosynchronous satellites have a high latency, right around 600 milliseconds,” he explains. “Through MEO, we were able to bring that down to about 140, which gives us the ability to create a 5G area.”

As these ad hoc systems were being deployed, Verizon also set up stations for residents to access the internet and charge their phones.

“We set up wireless emergency communication trailers [WECC],” says Davis. “They were places for displaced community members to come and get free WiFi, bottled water, and charge their phones. We had a Google Chromebook set up so they could start filling out insurance claims right away.”

Businesses faced significant technological challenges as well.

“Even with cloud providers, roughly one-third of enterprises had outages due to vulnerable single cloud availability zones, which did not distribute workloads across multiple geographic zones,” claims D’Ottavio. “Those with physical data centers unprotected from floods and electrical disasters experienced significant loss and impact to business continuity.”

Ramping Back Up

As roads cleared, crews cleared debris, and residents attempted to return to normalcy, the real work began. Public and private entities worked furiously to repair the damage to IT infrastructure and restore services that have become crucial to daily life in the 21st century.

Federal and state agencies, independent aid organizations, and competing private companies were required to balance a byzantine network of communication channels with their own goals.

“It was a massive coordination between not only the public sector, but also some of the large enterprise groups that were down there,” Davis says. “Coordinating with over 70 agencies can be chaotic at times.”

“We had calls with the power companies and restoration groups, so that when they came in and started getting rid of the damage, they weren't cutting fiber,” he says. “It was a challenge to make sure that when these restoration groups were coming in, they knew exactly where our backhaul was and where our partners’ fiber was so that once we got that permanent fiber backhaul back up it didn't come back down again.”

“Water seriously damages and can destroy IT infrastructure, leading to data loss and making it difficult to resume operations even after the storm has passed, which is why preparation and planning is key,” warns D’Ottavio.

Davis emphasizes the importance of relationships between public and private organizations in the long term, especially in a disaster-prone region like the Pacific southeast. “Because we have long-standing relationships with some of the agencies in the area, it made it really easy to just jump in and help right away,” he exhorts.

There was also the matter of fixing cell towers and antennae that had been damaged by the storm. Once basic service had been restored, Verizon set about optimizing it to previous levels.

“We had radios up on the towers that were twisted sideways,” he recalls. “We were sending drones up in the air to do site surveys to see what we had to do at each tower to make sure that the radios were back in the right position.”

D'Ottavio is enthusiastic about the potential for the cloud to facilitate recovery on the ground as well. Accela has offered its Rapid Damage Assessment (RDA) Cloud Service to all local government customers free of charge.

“This solution streamlines the inspection efforts necessary to get displaced residents back into their homes quickly and safely. It can be used for the immediate windshield survey inspections needed to expedite FEMA relief,” she says. “The solution also offers full property and infrastructure inspections used to understand the full extent of the damage, physical and online placarding to indicate safety of structures, and when it’s safe to return to areas that had been evacuated.”

This is no small thing in a region where thousands of homes were damaged and destroyed. Getting displaced residents back into their homes and facilitating repairs to their properties is a Sisyphean task -- properties vary in age, structural integrity, and consequent damage.

“For these areas to recover, reopen and get residents back into their homes, there was a need to process a much higher number of building permits than normal, at a much faster rate than normal, with potentially no access to government offices and resources,” D’Ottavio says.

Disaster-Prone Areas and Cloud

D’Ottavio suggests that businesses in disaster-prone areas ought to move to the cloud with greater urgency than most.

“Because most cloud providers have multiple regions and data centers, migrating to the cloud helps to ensure greater business continuity, especially in following an extreme weather event like a hurricane,” she advises.

“Relying on the cloud also makes it simple for governments to tap into mobile solutions so field workers can more easily complete the inspections needed,” she adds.

Still, recovery efforts are ongoing. Preventative measures and enthusiastic responders can only do so much to mitigate the force of Mother Nature. In the meantime, IT innovators have marshaled a considerable response and are well on their way to getting residents back online and back in business.

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About the Author(s)

Richard Pallardy

Freelance Writer

Richard Pallardy is a freelance writer based in Chicago. He has written for such publications as Vice, Discover, Science Magazine, and the Encyclopedia Britannica.

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