Messaging and Hurricane Katrina

Last year, I wrote a column about disaster preparedness in the face of large-scale destruction (see the URL below). The horrifying reports about Hurricane Katrina that have been coming out of New Orleans, Louisianna, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast have painfully reminded me of what I wrote then. Fortunately, my family members who live in the area are safe, even though it isn't clear whether they'll be able to return home and, if so, when. Many other people in the area are in similar, or worse, circumstances, and my thoughts and prayers are with them.

Although many experts predicted catastrophic damage to structures and huge loss of life in New Orleans because of Katrina's winds and the accompanying storm surge, it initially looked like the worst had been averted for that city when the storm took a more easterly path. Now, a few days after the initial strike, a better picture of conditions is emerging, and those conditions are pretty horrifying.

I'm sure you've been following the news as closely as I have. By looking deeper into the story, however, Exchange administrators can learn some valuable lessons from this experience. The biggest and most immediate lesson: Continuity isn't forever. For example, take emergency power. If you have an on-site generator, how much fuel does it have? It might be adequate for short outages caused by temporary conditions, but you probably don't have enough fuel for long-term operations. In the same vein, you might need a lot of other supplies or resources to implement extended operations, and those resources might not always be available. Accordingly, your business continuity plans should always include a "lifetime" that specifies how long your operations can be maintained before either shutting down or moving completely to an alternate implementation.

The second lesson: The infrastructure you need might not be there. In New Orleans, cell phone service is almost nonexistent, and my understanding is that terrestrial wireless devices such as BlackBerry handhelds aren't working, either. Short-range VHF radio is the primary communication tool that emergency agencies are using, but you probably don't have any in your own disaster operations kit.

The third lesson: You can never prepare too early. Companies that signed on for services such as MessageOne's Emergency Mail System (EMS) before Katrina struck were able to get notification to their employees before conditions worsened. As with flood insurance, if you wait to sign up for a notification, monitoring, or continuity service until you really need it, it will probably be too late.

The fourth lesson: Don't depend on having people on-site. When Louisiana Governor Katherine Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation, almost everyone who could leave did. In the event of a similar disaster in your area, you should assume that your staff will have both means and incentive to get out of town if ordered to do so, so your planning should include provisions for making an orderly shutdown and retreating to a safer area, taking copies of backup media with you, if possible.

The fifth--and most important--lesson: Some forces are beyond our control and can affect our lives in ways we don't expect. The lessons learned from Katrina will probably have an affect on your organization's disaster-recovery planning process; you should consider now what that affect might be.

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