The power is still out, cell phones calls still fail and businesses will remain closed today. But New Orleans is breathing a lot easier.
The city took a big hit over the Labor Day weekend from Hurricane Gustav, but it was spared the devastation wrought three years earlier by Katrina. And this time, local solution providers were ready.
Overall, the evacuation of New Orleans was a more efficient operation compared to Katrina. Emergency officials improved their response plan following the chaos that ensued during Hurricane Katrina and the same can be said for solution providers too. This time, they were better able to help customers backup systems and prepare their businesses for the possibility of an emergency.
Solution providers along the Gulf Coast developed new strategies after Katrina, and Gustav was the first big test to see if the changes would prove successful. Several VARs said all their hard work paid off.
One of the big lessons from Katrina, said Bill Long, president of Integrated Network Systems, a Metairie, La.-based solution provider, was that customers who backed up their data locally couldn't get to it or lost it after that 2005 storm. Customers kept tape drives in bank faults or on local off-site servers, thinking that even if the power went out, they could get to the office to retrieve them. Of course, in many cases that couldn't happen as parts of the city were shut down weeks and even months.
This time, small business customers took their servers or tapes with them or, even better, made sure their data was backed up in another part of the country, Long said.
"We went around to a half dozen or so customers and unplugged their servers after we did images of their OS and tape backup," Long said. "Every single [customer] is better prepared now."
Other solution providers took even more steps to ensure their customers' business continuity.
Global Data Systems, a Lafayette, La.-based solution provider, took that a step further. After Katrina, the company purchased 10 mobile, 5-foot-by-8-foot trailers that have satellite capability and can run on generators. The trailers provide customers with their rerouted voice traffic, Internet and e-mail, just as they would in a regular office, said Chris Vincent, senior vice president of Global Data Systems.
"It's got a 1.2 meter dish on it. We pull it up anywhere, run a cable inside. It's been great. We also have some 26-foot mobile offices with generators," he said. Global Data Systems marketed the units as insurance policies for "a couple hundred dollars a month" in case of a disaster, Vincent said. After Gustav, he's got more demand than trailers.
"That's business continuity. All the [telephone] exchanges went down. We have the capability to reroute voice traffic to different exchanges. Right now, we're rerouting one customer through a Utah exchange. I was in Houma (La.) yesterday, ground zero. It's tore up. There's no power, sewer, water. Baton rouge is tore up pretty good as well. We've got customers over there. They've been down for days. We could have had them with voice [communications] for a couple hundred a month," he said. The solution provider also rents them to customers who need voice and data access in hard-to-reach places such as off-shore oil rigs or in the Bayou, Vincent said. Prior to Gustav, solution providers like Global Data Systems also had their own business continuity plans in place.
"We're just more prepared now in general, from communications with employees, to figuring out how to pull these guys together. We have different levels of evacuation," Vincent said.
Global Data Systems rerouted its own traffic through California exchanges and bought a megawatt generator. The company never lost connectivity during or following Gustav, Vincent said.
It's been business as usual for us," he said. "The key is to have a plan and execute that plan. Ensure that you've got a way to have your customers communicate among themselves. Look at Houma. They're saying it could take weeks to restore power. That means your business is down for weeks. We can deliver a way to have your business up and running the next day."
Meanwhile, Universal Data helped clients by securing space in two Baton Rouge data centers for a month before Gustav arrived. Prior to the storm, the New Orleans-based solution provider helped backup several clients' mission critical information and applications to the data center, said Jim Perrier, president of UDI.
While Baton Rouge got hit harder than New Orleans this time, and the data centers are running on generators, UDI's customers haven't missed a beat.
Perrier's foresight prevented what happened to UDI after Katrina, when his office remained without power for weeks and employees scattered all over the South.
"My office still doesn't have electricity, but we were still able to function our business. We're very prepared for this and under the circumstances done very well," Perrier said. "My team all had a list of clients that they were accountable for. We made sure they knew what they had to do. We had all the backups done and it really went as smooth as it could be."
In New Orleans, life likely won't return to normal until at least next week, or at least as normal as possible while still licking some wounds from Katrina. Near his office in nearby Metarie, Long said the only businesses open Thursday morning were grocery stores and gas stations, along with one out of eight or 10 coffee shops.
He evacuated from his home on the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain about 4 a.m. Sunday to drive to a casino in Philadelphia, Miss., where he stayed for three days.
Before leaving, Long, an amateur photographer, had to back tens of thousands of photos onto a raid array to take with him.
"That was a pain in the neck. I can imagine what everyone is going through," he said. "I heard on the radio that it costs $1,500 per person to evacuate. That's expensive and it's a loss of business."
And that's why the city's solution providers took steps to ensure they could help.