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1/6/2006
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Hurricanes Expose Obsolete Software

Houston had just started upgrading its financial apps when Katrina and Rita hit.

The city of Houston was five months into updating aging procurement, asset-management, and payroll applications when Mother Nature interfered.

Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August, and Houston set up an emergency-services call center and hosted 25,000 refugees displaced from New Orleans in city shelters. When Hurricane Rita started barreling toward Houston in September, refugees were evacuated to places such as Beaumont, Texas, and Lake Charles, La., to the east. Rita caused moderate damage in Houston but devastated Beaumont and some other cities, knocking out electricity and creating a nightmarish set of problems for city officials as they sought to bring the refugees back.

At that point, many city officials wished the financial-app integration was further along. "It would have saved a lot of work going back and setting up documentation of those storm-preparation costs," says Earl Lambert, citywide chief technology officer. The accounting for these expenses was buried in the city's 1980s-era asset-management software running on a mainframe. Arcane reporting capabilities made it difficult to summon data. Yet the city was required to do so to meet federal emergency-assistance requirements.

Hurricane Rita evacuees talk with a FEMA worker in the storm's aftermath.

Hurricane Rita evacuees talk with a FEMA worker in the storm's aftermath.
Just before Katrina hit, Mayor Bill White said that Houston was on track to be one of the first cities to integrate its financial-accounting systems with other municipal functions. The move would allow data sharing across departments and make it easier for the city to report on how it spends taxpayers' money.

The city started mapping out the integration project, called HoustonOne, with applications from SAP. As planned, the applications would swap data back and forth through shared Microsoft SQL Server databases. The first phase, including financials, procurement, and materials-management systems, is due to launch July 1.

But that's little help when trying to locate expense data in the aftermath of the hurricanes. "Some key personnel have spent a lot of time and energy pulling out that information," Lambert says. One was Gary Gray, assistant director of Houston's finance and accounting department and a key member of the HoustonOne mySAP implementation project. "Trying to get reports from legacy asset-management systems hampered [Gray's] involvement with the SAP steering committee," Lambert says.

SAP Public Services Inc., an SAP consulting subsidiary, has a $15 million contract to implement and support HoustonOne over a 10-year period. Many of the city's 23,000 employees will have access to the applications.

With the second phase of the project, the city will implement mySAP payroll/human-resources and project accounting applications, which also would have made storm expense reporting easier. But that phase won't be ready to launch until Jan. 1, 2007.

While having the system in place this year would have helped with post-hurricane management, some refugees may still be living in Houston in 2007 when the new software is in place. "With project accounting, it will be much easier to document what the city is spending on refugee housing," Lambert says. "All the storm preparations and people's time could be logged into the system" and be available through standard reporting mechanisms. About 425 city employees are dedicated to providing refugee housing, and the bill is running into the hundreds of millions of dollars, he says. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency wants proper documentation for all of it.

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