by Stephanie Overby

IT in the Aftermath of 9/11: At the Center of a New World

Nov 15, 20017 mins
Disaster Recovery

On Sept. 11, one ordinary person -- the local Red Cross's IT leader -- rose to an extraordinary occasion, at a time when every action counted. Here's what she did and where she goes from here.n

For more than a week following the Sept. 11 attack, Leslie Hunt was described as “the tall blonde in the red jacket with all the answers.”

Standing in front of the entrance to Red Cross headquarters on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, wearing a Red Cross windbreaker, the CIO handled thousands of questions as New Yorkers found their way to the building with the red cross emblazoned on its facade.

“I’ve got this infection — can I still give blood?” “I brought a box of socks. Who do I give them to?” “Can you use these computer parts?”

“Clearly I’m blonde. Clearly I’m tall. And I was wearing a red jacket,” says Hunt, 49, who stands at 5 feet, 8 inches. “Did I have all of the answers? No. But I knew how to find them.”

Hunt’s efforts were critical in the early relief efforts of the Greater New York Red Cross chapter. “It wasn’t my [regular] job to go out there and organize everything, but it needed to be done, and I just did it. I arranged for the manning of shelters. I made sure food was being prepared. I directed volunteers,” Hunt explains.

Her IT-specific efforts included ensuring e-mail and Internet services stayed up and working, setting up databases to organize information about the people available to staff the various relief efforts, and importing data to the financial development software to track the flood of donations coming in online and off.

Hunt and her small IT team saw some serious return on their investment of time and labor following the attack, although it’s not the kind of ROI one usually associates with the CIO role. According to a memo from Red Cross CEO Bob Bender, between Sept. 11 and Sept. 30, 19,490 Greater New York volunteers and Red Cross employees served 3,839,865 meals and snacks, conducted 17,540 crisis counseling sessions, provided 15,848 health service contacts, responded to 67,122 calls to the help line, opened 14 shelters housing 371 people and operated 30 service delivery sites.

First Response

On Sept. 11, Hunt was getting ready for work in her apartment just a few blocks away from her Amsterdam Avenue office on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Since becoming the first-ever CIO of the Greater New York chapter (the largest in the United States) in 1999, she had been making strides in the paperbound company. She was devising a plan in conjunction with the Metropolitan Atlanta Red Cross Chapter for a much-needed CRM system with an ERP layer, and that morning she was thinking about upgrading her local and wide area networks. She’d just signed off on a strategic plan for her department, knowing that it was months and dollars away from approval, not to mention execution. Also in her thoughts: She’d let go of a staff member because of budget cutbacks in July, and her small group of workers had been feeling the strain.

Then it happened. “I was looking in the mirror, and I could see the reflection of the television,” she remembers. “I saw the plane hit the building, and I thought, Why are they showing Towering Inferno so early in the morning? I walked toward the TV and heard what happened. I thought, Oh my God.”

Her first task was to set up an emergency operations center?12 desktops, phones and network connections for the remote Red Cross workers who would be arriving, laptops in hand. She’d done the same thing last winter just before a forecasted blizzard that never came. Usually, establishing such an emergency operations center is triggered by the city setting up its equivalent. But Hunt didn’t wait for that. She knew the Greater New York staff would need the center immediately to plan shelters, staffing, supplies and logistics for the local relief effort.

That done, she pulled together a couple of staff members and volunteers to keep up her fragile LAN and WAN. She stayed at the front door and designated her help desk supervisor to handle the usual user issues.

For the next two weeks, each 16-hour workday was different. One day Hunt was dealing with a new set of users — abbis, priests, mullahs and others sent by the national Red Cross to offer spiritual care to suffering New Yorkers. “All of a sudden, I had 75 people who needed access to computers and phones,” Hunt says. Another day, relief workers from Red Cross headquarters in Washington, D.C., housed in an emergency operations center in Brooklyn, couldn’t access their e-mail. Hunt had to set up new accounts for them pronto. At another point, Hunt’s own Microsoft Exchange servers buckled from the increased load (new e-mail servers are near the top of Hunt’s wish list). The Greater New York website ( went down several times from the spike in traffic. Then on Sept. 12, the e-mail server got hit with a virus.

A Little Help From Her IT Friends

There are a lot of powerful moments in these hours of blackness,” Hunt says. “If you focus on those good things, they’ll get bigger and bigger, and eventually the black will go away.”

Shortly after the virus attack (Hunt caught it early and had the patch on hand), donations from the IT community started flooding in. Hardware. Software. Routers. Switches. Microsoft waived licensing fees for Hunt’s extra end users during the disaster. Others helped where Hunt’s own staff lacked time or expertise. Brian Ford, a Cisco consulting engineer, worked to bolster the organization’s networks. AT&T Labs sent Principal Scientist Fred Tune to offer recommendations for speeding up the network. Dell Computer Systems Consultant Jim Marrone was on call for hardware questions. Todd Curtis and Rory Wheelock, both infrastructure engineers from EDS, have made a home for themselves in Hunt’s department. Cap Gemini Ernst & Young sent consultants to help with inventories of everything from socks to dog food to computer parts. Other volunteers included’s CTO David Willen, EMC Systems Engineer Christian Aguayo and members of Webgrrls New York City. “We got such a huge outpouring of help from the IT community, it was humbling,” Hunt says.

Also in the silver-lining department: An upgrade to Hunt’s LAN went from wish list to reality. Donations from suppliers have made it possible to work on plans for a permanent emergency operations center and a high-tech emergency response vehicle. Among other projects that could get a green light thanks to volunteer efforts and donations: setting up a data redundancy site, upgrading the e-mail server, improving WAN connections, setting up a storage area network to handle a surge of data and creating an electronic inventory system to track materials such as in-kind donations.

“We have made commitments to IT before this for certain initiatives, but first and foremost we serve our clients,” says Adrienne Glasgow, CFO at the regional Red Cross. “Without these in-kind donations it would have been very difficult to get all of this done. We couldn’t have dreamed of getting this kind of expertise in here. I would have looked at the price tag and said no.”

A week and a half after the attack, Hunt finally took off her red jacket. “I had a minute, and I took that chance to take a look in my office. My desk looked like a bomb hit it. I had 700 and something-odd e-mails. I had 54 voice mail messages,” Hunt recalls. She slipped into a fashionable lime-green blazer.

Not that everything — or anything — was back to normal; it’s just that you have to begin somewhere, and this is where Leslie Hunt began.