Texas Rising May/June 2009

Local Government Tools that Made the Difference

Galveston

Hunkering Down

City shores up IT infrastructure following Hurricane Ike’s devastation

By Bruce Wright

When Hurricane Ike slammed ashore at Galveston in the early morning hours of September 13, 2008, it devastated large portions of the city.

Most evacuated residents were not allowed to return for nearly two weeks, as local government worked with emergency responders to reestablish vital services.

Rebooting the city of Galveston’s information technology (IT) infrastructure was the responsibility of Technology Services Supervisor Ryan Young – who has been through hurricanes before. During Hurricane Rita, in September 2005, his team attempted to dodge the storm by moving vital equipment away from Galveston. But that plan turned out to have its own perils. “We were coming back into town and we ended up hitting a cow on a dark road,” says Young. “We almost lost everything.

“This time, we went with a ‘hunker down in place’ strategy,” he says.

After Ike’s wave of destruction passed, Young’s team began to assess the damage to the city’s IT systems.

“Our buildings remained intact, so our server hardware and software stayed safe,” Young says. “But we didn’t have power to run anything, and all communications were down. And they stayed down, for many days.”

On Your Own

All power lines were down. Cell phone service didn’t reappear, even in a limited form, for three days. “One thing we learned is that, after a hurricane, you’re going to have three days of nothing,” Young says. “You can’t get power or outside assistance. You’re going to be completely on your own. And if you don’t already have generators, you’re not going to be able to get them.”

Power turned out to be a particularly thorny problem. Generators “died right when we needed them,” Young says. And one unit powered by natural gas proved useless when it was discovered that Galveston’s natural gas lines also had been severed. Finally, a generator purchased from Motorola allowed Young’s team to get some power running to the city’s IT resources. All electrical power and IT connectivity was restored within about two weeks.

Off Site, Out of Mind

Interestingly, one common option for disaster recovery – an off-site data center – failed to help Galveston.

A new database for permitting was being maintained at the vendor’s location on the mainland. After the storm, however, city workers discovered that a fiber-optic line linking the vendor with the city’s equipment had been destroyed.

“We needed the information on the remote system here, in house, to be able to do everything properly,” Young says. “But the link to the mainland had to be there. Any Internet connection would have done, but we were completely disconnected.

“So now we’ve moved that database back to our system,” he says.

Today, the city is working with the federal government to develop funding for long-term recovery projects on Galveston Island. One project the city wants to pursue would bury power lines to ensure that some juice remains on – in the teeth of the next storm.TR

For more information on Galveston’s recovery and rebuilding from Hurricane Ike, see Galveston’s Long-Term Community Recovery Plan.