by Susannah Patton

Katrina Plus One: Disaster Plans Stress Communication

Sep 01, 20063 mins
Disaster Recovery

A year has passed, but Aug. 29, 2005, remains a fresh memory for Mississippi Power CIO Aline Ward: As Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast, Ward scrambled to keep communication lines open from a command center in the utility’s Gulfport plant. Because this storm center was located several miles inland, Ward thought equipment would be safe from flooding. “We were on the second floor, but soon the water started to rise and come inside the building,” recalls Ward. Working in the dark, Ward and her IT colleagues piled sandbags against the door and bailed water from the room to keep radio communications equipment up and running.

The result? Ward kept one radio system running throughout the storm and its aftermath, while her IT department worked through the night and logged 18-hour days for more than a week after the storm to help restore power to 195,000 customers who could safely receive it in 23 counties throughout southeastern Mississippi. Many of the employees—including Ward—lost their homes to Katrina. “The personal side was huge,” Ward says, noting that many employees still don’t have homes and that all corporate offices remain located in trailers or one of five temporary buildings, all of which IT had to quickly equip.

The most important lesson Ward learned during Katrina: Communication with employees is critical to getting an IT department and a company back on its feet. Before the storm, her department owned five satellite phones (important in disaster situations since cell phones often don’t work); but they were older models, and proved to be heavy and cumbersome to use. For a period of several days following Katrina, for example, Ward talked with her employees via radio communications. Now the company, which is a unit of Southern Co., owns 74 new, smaller satellite phones assigned to key ¿locations.

Before Katrina hit, Mississippi Power had installed an extensive, self-healing fiber ring network, which the company owns and maintains itself, to ensure that operations centers like the storm center get access to critical applications. When individual fiber routes failed during Katrina, the network was able to reroute data and continue working. After the storm, Ward’s team added microwave systems, similar to satellite dishes, so the company is not dependent on leased telecommunications landlines from Bell South for voice communications during a storm. At the command center, she’s added waterproof walls and raised equipment off the ground.

Ingenuity also plays a part in any disaster recovery, Ward now recognizes. At Mississippi Power’s corporate headquarters near the beach, a key generator sank under water just after the storm hit. Linemen worked to place a large electrical cable from a portable generator up to the seventh floor data center in order to restore power at the company’s telecom hub for voice and data.

Ward says she feels better prepared now to help her company survive a similar storm. In addition, she is working to upgrade software that tracks employees and power-restoration resources in the event of disaster. “We’re still looking at everything from a worst-case scenario,” Ward says. “From the IT side, I feel much better prepared than pre-Katrina.”