Recovering from Disaster in Coastal Texas

Written by Peter McCallum, Egenera 

Peter McCallum is Egenera’s director of partner development. He is based in Austin, Texas.

I had the opportunity last weekend to travel to the Texas coast to help out with recovery efforts in some very hard-hit communities. Once the media drives off to the next exciting event, the residents are left to get on with the business of cleaning up and rebuilding their lives. The striking visual impact of big and small, rich and poor, being impacted without preference or prejudice by catastrophes is immediately apparent as you drive into “ground-zero.” However, it’s also very apparent that those without means before have less now, and those who had the financial resources to prepare, are going to be just fine. You can’t be in this business without connecting to a core consideration of disaster preparation, recovery, and continuity when you see houses and businesses smashed by storms and floods.  It all becomes quite real.

The first consideration was a matter of continuity:   If where you live is about to be pounded by an event, where do you go? Will your friends take you in? Family in another part of the state? Lots of hotel points to burn? When the evacuation call went out, you had two choices: ride it out or run. Those who stayed to “ride it out” had to content with bolstering up homes and windows, generators, power outages, fuel shortages, food, water, sewer, and the change of flooding, wind, and physical damage. Those who ran, had to deal with traffic, fuel, expense of emergency lodgings and food, good will of others, law enforcement, and increasingly fewer options for those who waited until the last minute.  It would have been the same for local businesses:   Shut everything down and protect your backup tapes, or replicate to an inland or cloud datacenter and run from there until things settle down.  It’s all a matter of resources, time, and planning to determine the appropriate action to take.

While I was down in towns like Corus Christie, Portland, Ingleside, Rockport, Port Aransas, I was overwhelmed by the extend of recovery. When I spoke with the fire chiefs, mayors, pastors in these towns they all discussed how difficult it was for anyone to help due to red-tape and fear. Municipalities can’t go on private property to collect debris for fear of getting sued, rescue operations are halted for FEMA paperwork, and free meals and donations are halted for tampering inspection. With fuel scarce and utilities slowly coming back on line, the actual people who need help can’t get back on their feet because the actual helpers are impacted as well!   This is not fear-mongering or finger-pointing, it’s a simple reality of getting back to life after a disaster.  Recovery is a difficult beast as it’s not just infrastructure, but the entire ecosystem of utilities, environment, policy, equipment, and know-how that is required to get people back into their homes and living normal lives again. It is the same with IT recovery:   the better you prepare, and the better your tools, and the more complete your scope is across the whole ecosystem, the better your chances are of getting back to normalcy quickly. Recovering your business is not just a matter of having clean, dry backup tapes, nor is it solely having your servers in a cloud or DR site!

And this leads us to disaster preparation. I read an article as Harvey was crawling its way to shore that indicated only 15-20% of homes in the path of the storm were covered by flood insurance. I’m fairly certain that there were thousands of calls to insurance agents asking how quickly they could get coverage, and I’m fairly certain that the answer was “too late.” When I described the evacuation and the veritable parking lot the highways became in the hours just prior to Harvey’s landfall, one would wonder why people didn’t get on the road days in advance, and not just hours? Why didn’t people book hotel rooms ahead of time just in case? Why doesn’t everyone have a generator and sandbags at the ready when they live in a flood-prone area? The answer to this is pretty simple:  insurance, and emergency equipment costs real money when everything seems good!  When things start getting bad, everyone wishes they had prepared better. For some, not having a plan is a matter of choice, for others, they simply don’t have the resources to do anything about it.

Whether we are discussing a massive natural disaster, or a business contingency plan, or both at the same time, it’s important to note that not everyone has the resources or expertise to handle all eventualities on their own. When left to our own devices, we tend to do all that we are able to do and have to decide how to act in a disaster to protect what is valuable to us. The more preparation, planning, testing, and insurance we leverage, usually the better off we will be. The very clear message is that even smallest companies, with the smallest of budgets can take measures to plan for, and get ahead of, emergencies. The time to reduce the disastrous impact of an event is to plan ahead and have a game plan. Houses will be rebuilt, roads cleared, and power restored, new equipment and things purchased.  On a personal level, the most important aspect of planning is the preservation of life first, and the preservation and maintenance of things second. When it comes to business, it’s the preservation of data, and fast resumption of services (hopefully to serve those in need!).

During and after the disaster down in the Texas coast and Houston, thousands of private citizens came to the aid of those trapped by events. Millions of dollars were raised to restore normalcy, and to serve those who were most seriously impacted. In addition to rescuing, cleaning, clearing, and feeding, I saw other cool situations where people were setting up laptops and temporary WiFi help let refugees reconnect with their families over Facebook and messaging apps. I saw cloud-based phone services set up within hours to provide emergency crew communications and families to check in with loved ones. As Texas recovers and rebuilds, and attention shifts to the devastation wrought by Irma in Florida, my sincere hope is that we all take whatever lessons we can in preparing for disaster, and to serve those who were far less lucky than ourselves. Think of how we can leverage our skills in technology to help people and businesses prepare, leverage safe resources with as little impact as possible on regular life, and when the worst occurs, be ready and agile enough to respond, serve, and help recover.

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