On Friday, Aug. 26, 2005, Frank DiFulco received a call from his wife while he was shopping at Wal-Mart. She told him to pick up some water, batteries and other supplies, as forecasters warned that Hurricane Katrina was headed to New Orleans. DiFulco, court management information systems director for the Louisiana Supreme Court, boarded up his and his parents’ houses Saturday and evacuated town on Sunday.
While staying with relatives, he learned that both houses were flooded. DiFulco spent the next four months gutting the houses, sifting through the remains, preparing to move his family to a new house in Jefferson Parish and caring for his father, whose Alzheimer’s had grown worse through the trauma of the evacuation.
All the while, he was working with a core team of people to keep the Supreme Court functioning. Its New Orleans building stayed operational until its backup generator ran out of fuel. “Then our data center went dark and stayed dark,” he recalls.
DiFulco was one of four employees working around the clock to pull critical equipment from racks in the darkened server rooms, load it into trucks and bring it to Baton Rouge, where the court’s Internet service provider loaned it office space to set up a makeshift data center.
“They really put a lot of sweat and tears into getting the equipment that was retrieved from the office up and running so we could begin some semblance of operation,” DiFulco says of his colleagues. “Then, as staff started showing up, we began tackling other projects.”
While workers were coping with personal crises, they managed to make it into the office to keep the court running. As businesses develop disaster recovery plans, they must consider who will do what in an emergency, but the Supreme Court’s experience after Katrina is an important reminder of a critical reality in any disaster recovery plan: Not everyone will be able to make it into work, and those who do will need to be supported by the business before they can focus on the job at hand.
“You have to take care of your people first,” says Louisiana Supreme Court CIO Mike Evanson, noting that restoration of payroll systems should take top priority. “If you can’t take care of them, they can’t do any good for you. You have to get their basic needs satisfied and out of their minds so they can focus on what you need them to focus on.”
It’s also important to establish a way to communicate with staff immediately following a disaster. After Katrina, employees of the Supreme Court didn’t know where to go. An appellate court wound up letting the Supreme Court set up a home base. The court got the word out through the local media, and the human resources team began contacting people via their emergency contact information. Once email and the court’s website were restored, they used them to notify the remaining staff.
“We learned you can’t rely on one means of communication to reach staff,” says DiFulco. “Cell towers get knocked out. Everybody depended upon cellphones, but that’s a weakness.”
The Supreme Court now subscribes to an emergency communication system and can send text messages, emails or phone calls to employees. For it to work properly, however, the court makes sure that it gathers as much alternate contact information as possible, and it updates it annually along with the disaster recovery plan, according to Evanson.
As more Louisiana Supreme Court staff returned to work, they broke into two groups: one to find and set up rented office space, and the other to restore systems. They moved into an old bank building and filled it with used furniture and old desktops from the state’s surplus property. They also restored service so that people could work remotely, and increased bandwidth to accommodate scores of people connecting through a virtual private network.
Throughout the recovery period, DiFulco and his family rented a house in Bunkie, about an hour and a half northwest of Baton Rouge. However, many staff struggled to find housing.
“The biggest thing after Katrina was where people were going to live and where they were going to stay,” recalls DiFulco. Some people put up coworkers but there were few areas that were high and dry.
The Supreme Court rented hotel rooms so people could get to work. Others got trailers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the court helped them apply for the trailers and obtain utility services.
Some employees never made it back to work because they relocated out of state or had to take care of personal issues instead of work. “So then you had to ask people to step into things that they normally didn’t do,” DiFulco says.
These and countless other unexpected twists and turns taught the court staff a valuable lesson: “A plan is only good until it hits reality, and you’ve got to adapt to the situation, not try to figure out how to overcome the plan that fails,” DiFulco advises. “You’ve got to be flexible.”