by Jan Rideout

A CIO Discusses Her Experience With Hurricane Katrina

Apr 15, 20066 mins
IT Strategy

I loved living on the Mississippi coast. I arrived in December 2001 to be CIO for a $3 billion division of Northrop Grumman, which builds military warships in Pascagoula, Miss., and New Orleans. As a native New Yorker and having just moved to Mississippi from Northern California, I thought this would be just another stop in my career.

I was wrong.

After living on the Mississippi coast for about a year, I told my boss (and everyone else who asked) that I never wanted to move again. I had found a great job in a small-town atmosphere devoid of traffic and pollution. And my home was directly on the back bay of Biloxi, Miss., with incredible views of the water and wildlife all around. Paradise found!

But all of that changed on Aug. 29, 2005, with the arrival of Hurricane Katrina. On the Saturday evening before the storm hit, my husband, David, and I discussed evacuation plans. Having driven 10 hours to Tennessee (with our three dogs in the pickup truck) just six weeks before to escape Hurricane Dennis, we were both reluctant to do the journey again.

We considered staying at a local motel, but when we awoke on Sunday morning, Aug. 28, the storm was looking too dire for us to remain in the area. I went online and found a hotel in Bainbridge, in Southwestern Georgia, that would take our dogs. By 11 a.m. we were fighting the traffic driving east.

My staff had spent Friday and Saturday doing their usual heavy-weather preparation. I have about 230 people in Mississippi and Louisiana, and they’ve been through the drill many times before: taking backups, sending them to one of our data centers in Dallas, shutting down servers, covering them up with heavy-duty plastic.

Monday, Aug. 29, was an extremely long day—sitting in our tiny motel room, watching CNN and the Weather Channel to get a sense of how bad the storm was. My BlackBerry had no signal in Bainbridge, so I couldn’t contact anyone either by phone or e-mail. When we saw our hometown Comfort Inn (which was where we originally planned to stay) with part of its roof blown off, we knew it was going to be bad. We just had no idea how bad.

The Damage Done

By Tuesday afternoon, I was on a plane along with David to Dallas, where my boss, Northrop Grumman CIO Tom Shelman, is located. After settling in to our new “hometel,” I dashed into our Dallas office to join the efforts to set up an IT command center. The Pascagoula center was flooded; it had an eight-foot watermark in the building. The New Orleans data center, while intact and on generator power, was disconnected from the rest of world due to extensive problems with the public infrastructure. In addition, millions of dollars of information technology infrastructure—networks, phones and desktops out in the Pascagoula shipyard—had been destroyed.

My Northrop Grumman colleagues were struggling to find key members of my staff. Finally, late Tuesday, I was able to get a call through to one of my immediate staff who lived near me. He had been evacuated from his home early Monday morning before the water rose too high and was in a local shelter. Talking to him brought the reality of my situation home. He informed me, as gently as possible, that it was very likely that the area I lived in was completely destroyed. I sank to the floor in despair. If what he was saying was true, I had just lost everything I owned.

The next day, my husband, who also works for Northrop Grumman, boarded one of the company’s many corporate planes bringing supplies and equipment to the region. He was met by one of my employees who was generous enough to drive him to our house. Prior to his arrival, another one of my staff had made his way over to our home and finally got through to me on his cell phone.

“Tell your husband not to come,” he said. “There’s nothing here.”

I took the day off to absorb the shock. I knew I had to take some time to grieve. I took the opportunity to get a few decent outfits, as all I had taken when I left Mississippi was a pair of jeans, some sweats and a pair of Birkenstocks. My entire wardrobe was now in the Gulf of Mexico.

Picking Up the Pieces

Gradually, we began to make contact with other staff members in the area. But what we found was that we had to take care of their basic needs, such as food, water and gasoline, in order to get them in a position where they could help. Volunteers from Dallas drove RVs loaded with supplies down to the coast.

My own basic needs focused on finding a place to live. After being stationed with Dave and the dogs in Dallas for two weeks, we drove back to Mississippi. We moved into one of the travel trailers Northrop Grumman had sent down to house employees. Finding a house to rent was extremely difficult. Any undamaged housing in the area was snatched up sight unseen. After two weeks of relentless searching, we finally found a rental in Mobile, Ala.

In the meantime, IT employees from Texas, Florida, Maryland, California and several other locations joined forces with the local Mississippi and Louisiana staff to help pull off a miracle. Two weeks after Katrina hit, the shipyard in Pascagoula reopened and we had basic systems, such as the system for employees to clock in and out, ready and working.

Approximately six weeks after the storm, 95 percent of the application systems had been restored. People who had lost everything continued to make the restoration of the shipyard systems a priority. In Pascagoula, nearly the entire IT staff showed up for work almost every day. One of my direct reports stayed in her home for the storm, and when her windows started breaking and the waters began to rise, she and her family had to swim to safety. They spent five hours in the flood waters. But she had put her BlackBerry in a Ziploc bag. She stayed in contact and showed up for work the next day. I am forever grateful to all the colleagues who rallied around me in this time of difficulty.

It’s now almost eight months since the hurricane, and we are still rebuilding some of the shipyard’s IT infrastructure. The contents of my home still lie strewn on my property. We understand it will likely be years before we can even start to rebuild.

Every day, I miss my home, the gorgeous sunsets and the pelicans flying by. I miss my “things”: my furniture, my clothes and my jewelry. But perhaps as compensation, I have a newfound appreciation for other things. I’ve come to realize that the friendship, support and love of my coworkers is a gift I will never again take for granted.