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Patricia Keefe
Patricia Keefe
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Katrina's IT Legacy

This week marks the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the devastation of New Orleans. In case there was any danger of forgetting the ability of Mother Nature to wreak unspeakable havoc, she highlighted the date by bringing forth Hurricanes Ernesto and John.

This week marks the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the devastation of New Orleans. In case there was any danger of forgetting the ability of Mother Nature to wreak unspeakable havoc, she highlighted the date by bringing forth Hurricanes Ernesto and John.While Ernesto was barely able to summon tropical storm status by the time it hit Southern Florida, John is now a Category 4 storm hovering off the Mexican coast.

We may have escaped any significant damage this time, but the hurricane season has only just begun. There will be more to come, and who knows what will happen to Ernesto as it heads back out to sea and then inland to the Carolinas later this week.

Katrina highlighted many shortcomings in our nation's technical infrastructure and level of disaster readiness. IT and high technology have both shouldered some of the blame and been tapped as part of the solution. Katrina's legacy has to be a total overhaul of the country's disaster preparedness, as well as the technology used to enable a swift response during the event and a quick recovery afterwards. That may have been the initial plan in the wrenching weeks following the hurricane as the nation agonized over the failures of FEMA and the inadequacies of the state and federal response to the storm and its aftermath, but a year later where are we? Not very far, it appears.

In fact, we're still struggling on many levels to reach storm-driven goals, be it local needs like finding IT workers in New Orleans, meeting the national imperative to get medical and Rx records digitized, or even unraveling the incompatible snarl of emergency communications systems that failed so profoundly a year ago.

For one thing, we're still in a meeting and conferencing mode, tossing around ideas at events such as Synthetic Portland, a disaster-preparedness conference held Aug. 18, where local officials, academics, and business leaders discussed a model for data sharing during an emergency. Obviously the problems under discussion and the technical solutions being proposed at events such as this are very complex and very expensive. It will take time--but how much time we have before the next big disaster is anyone's guess.

For example, take FEMA. Homeland Security Secretary Chief Michael Chertoff told a U.S. Senate committee in February that in order to better handle the next catastrophic event, his department and FEMA needed interoperability, hardened communications, a tracking system for shipments, improved surveillance resources, upgraded software, better hardware, and more capacity on its Web site for disaster registration and processing. Talk about a total overhaul.

Still, some progress worth noting has been made. One shining star seems to be the Red Cross, which under the leadership of CIO Steve Cooper managed to recognize and change policies that weren't working, while also galvanizing the high-tech community in the immediate aftermath of the storm to help work out an IT strategy (and in some cases, provide the equipment needed) in short order. Collaboration, a concept often in short supply between government organizations, was key to Cooper's success.

More recent was last week's disaster readiness test. A mock exercise built around the idea of a massive viral outbreak and a series of cyberattacks was designed to test not just general disaster preparedness, but cybersecurity readiness as well. The emphasis was on the intersection of social needs and technology, with numerous technologies being put to the test.

On a very small scale, there's the American Red Cross of Central Florida, which will be deploying MessageOne's AlertFind emergency notification system going forward. The system will enable the agency to contact and direct volunteers in minutes, rather than days. Of course, this strategy still depends on a working communications systems. But it's a significant improvement. "Days, hours, and minutes really do matter in a crisis situation," observed Becky Sebren, director of emergency services for Central Florida Red Cross.

What advice would you give to the government agencies and IT experts trying to ensure a better response to the next disaster, and what technologies do you think would work best under emergency conditions?

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