Louisiana-Based Microsoft Partner Pitches In To Help With Hurricane Recovery

Not one of Benoit&'s family members, friends, co-workers or clients was seriously hurt following Hurricane Katrina's assault on New Orleans and Hurricane Rita's roar through Texas. The project manager's Houma, La.-based employer, accounting ISV and Microsoft partner Advanced Software Development, is 50 miles southeast of New Orleans and 50 miles southwest of Houston, sandwiched between the hardest hit regions of the recent storms.

Advanced Software sustained only minor wind damage from Katrina and closed its doors for just three days. It also escaped the flooding that Rita brought to Houma weeks later. Many of the firm&'s local clients in the Maritime and Transportation Management department and the oil and gas industry had to relocate outside New Orleans. But Advanced Software, formerly known as UA Business Software, kept revenue flowing in by serving customers outside the affected areas.

Still, life is anything but normal for the Microsoft software and services firm, according to the 38-year-old Benoit. "This is our Ground Zero. The World Trade Center affected one square mile, and this covered 90,000 square miles," he told CRN a week after the first hurricane hit. "New Orleans is a ghost town. The scope and size of this is beyond any one of us to handle."

That was roughly two months ago. At the time, the southern city was under water and lacked power. In addition, its IT infrastructure was destroyed, telephone lines were downed and cell phone service was unusable. The airport was closed as well.

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The Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (OHSEP) announced the opening of a Disaster Recovery Center (DRC) in Houma on Oct. 1.

In e-mails and cell phone calls with CRN over the past six weeks, Benoit described the hardships of displaced businesses that flooded into Houma for basic necessities to get back up and running--namely dry office space, a communications infrastructure and Internet access.

Houma and New Orleans apparently had little in the way of disaster recovery plans in advance of the storm, Benoit said. There weren&'t enough PCs and Internet connections to help those stranded in shelters to apply for food stamps, or to help with business needs. And with the airport down and chaos in the aftermath of the hurricanes, Benoit cancelled plans to attend Microsoft Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles. With cell phone service down, Benoit got a Skype account but wasn&'t easily accessible for weeks.

As an IT pro, Benoit was upset with the slow pace of recovery and got involved. He coordinated with the Southern Louisiana Economic Council and the local chamber of commerce, as well as with a former technology partner who had become a FEMA official to develop IT solutions that would resolve basic problems.

Together, they developed the www.businessrebuilding.org site using SharePoint, Visual Studio and the company's UA AppWiz Framework to enable better collaboration and distribution of information.

Even as Advanced Software struggled to keep its own business going given the communications problems, Benoit and Co. rolled up their sleeves and worked to help displaced companies in more concrete ways. The 18-empoyee firm donated a portion of its 9,000 square feet of office space in Houma to displaced oil, production and drilling corporate customers that fled the Gulf of Mexico, as well as to IT workers seeking work.

Advanced Software also enlisted the help of local networking solution providers Computer Sales and Service and Pinnacle of Houma to help the incoming businesses get their networks back up and running again. Demand for emergency services were high, Benoit noted.

"I was contacted by one New Orleans businessman who was coming to Houma, and he said he had seven servers coming in and needed an iSCSI adapter and help setting up six Windows 2003 servers,” he said. "So I talked to a local technology partner, and we helped."

Advanced Software builds SQL Server, Office and .Net-based accounting software on the Microsoft platform but in recent years has gone vertical and offers a 60/40 products and consulting services mix. It develops a tool set and framework based on Visual Studio for the maritime and oil and gas industries that accesses information from vessels offshore via satellite and displays it over a Web-based Office interface to customers using XML Web services. While the storm wreaked havoc on New Orleans, it taught some important lessons about the benefits of technology in an emergency, Benoit said. He still doesn&'t understand why the city hasn&'t taken the opportunity to roll out a broadband wireless infrastructure based on Wi-Fi and WiMAX to speed connectivity and help in the relief and rebuilding efforts. Yet it&'s a case that all cities should study for emergency preparedness, he noted.

"As a solution provider that has a focus on utilizing technology to automate business processes, it is difficult [for me] to sit through meeting after meeting and see the amount of information that is sitting in shoeboxes and manila folders, everyone taking notes like crazy, forms being filled out by hand," Benoint said. "On the positive side, we are seeing a better understanding of the benefits of having a Web-enabled Microsoft .Net solution. There is no need to paint a conceptual picture of having your business information in a framework that allows for access anyplace, anytime."

Though Benoit doesn&'t complain, Advanced Software hasn&'t escaped the wrath of Katrina and Rita without incident. The storm slowed some adoption of the firm&'s Maritime/Transportation Management Solution, which was designed with its .Net-based UA Dimensions III framework. One client, McDonough Maritime, relocated to Houston after getting slammed in New Orleans and then had to relocate again as Rita approached Texas.

"It is hard to keep focus on rolling out a UA Dimensions III implementation with all of the disruptions in just doing day-to-day business," Benoit said.

Advanced Software was forced to cancel its own users conference planned for New Orleans in November, and one of its biggest trade shows of the year, the International Workboat Show, also was canned because of the storm, he added. "We will miss a great opportunity to showcase some of the benefits brought to bear with marquee maritime companies like Otto Candies and Cenac Towing," he said.

More than a month after the storm hit, New Orleans-area businesses continue to struggle. Benoit's cell phone service works intermittently. Still, he and others continue to work seven days a week to meet customers' needs. He continues to solicit help from the industry and government to help the tech sector and is pleased that Microsoft held emergency regional meetings in the aftermath of the storm and worked with local solution providers to help affected companies.

Benoit continues to solicit help from the industry and government to help in the relief efforts, and he hopes Microsoft and other IT firms will offer solution providers specialized seminars on rebuilding their businesses and special financing for ISVs and solution providers that have been wiped out by the hurricanes.

Some technology companies have relocated to other cities, but Benoit said he has no plans to leave. For him, "Nawlins" is home and will restore itself as a premier destination for IT companies and conferences.

"I can live anywhere with the knowledge and expertise I have--Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, or L.A.," Benoit said. "But man, I can't get my mama's cooking anywhere else or the shrimp and gumbo in Nawlins."