by Ben Worthen and Linda Rosencrance

Disaster Recovery: After Hurricanes, Federal IT Services Fall Short

Oct 15, 20052 mins
Disaster Recovery

Out of the devastation of the Gulf Coast this hurricane season comes this lesson for CIOs: Know how your customers want or need to do business with you, and set up your IT infrastructure accordingly.

Hurricane Katrina victims applying last month for federal assistance on the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency website had to have Internet Explorer Version 6 or higher to access the necessary digital forms. The browser is compatible only with PCs running Microsoft Windows 98 and higher. Hurricane victims who used older PCs, Macs or Linux computers were unable to fill out the forms online.

Compounding the problem, the heavy call volume on FEMA’s toll-free line made it almost impossible for anyone without a computer to apply for assistance. FEMA’s website told visitors that the best time to call was between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. Eastern time.

About a third of Americans do not have Internet access at all, and the poor, who were disproportionately affected by the hurricane, are less likely to be Internet users than those who are well-off, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project in Washington, D.C.

Mac users such as Gary Mullins were irked by FEMA’s exclusion. Mullins, who had brought his mother to California after Katrina wiped out her home in Mississippi, found his Mac couldn&’t access the online application when he tried to help his mother apply for assistance. “This smacks of a serious leadership failure that the use of the Internet is reserved for only the Windows community,” Mullins wrote to the MacInTouch website. About 5 percent of all computer users nationwide use a Mac or Linux operating system, according to IDC. Almost 69 percent of Americans use IE6 to browse the Internet, according to W3Schools.

At press time, FEMA was still working on modifying the application to work with additional browsers.

All of which, says the Pew project’s director, Lee Rainie, should underscore the importance of knowing who your customers are. Otherwise, you have to acknowledge that you won’t serve everyone.