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October 29, 2007

MIS Damages From Hurricane Unfolding

Written by  John Mahnke
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CHARLESTON, S.C. - Shattering the lives and homes of residents of the Carolinas, Hurricane Hugo also blasted data centers with floods, wind and the cessation of the blood of computers - electric power.

Although some larger enterprises had emergency power generators, and others managed to borrow them, many organizations simply had to back up the data and power down until commercial power was restored. The longer power stays down, the more the risk to sensitive equipment and data, and the greater the difficulty in bringing systems back up. Many residences and businesses are still without power.

In the week after the storm, residents of Charleston, S.C., said the real story of the hurricane was the way the crisis renewed their gratitude for being alive and bringing people together. Questions of data processing, or even returning to work, were still far away for many concerned with finding food, drinkable water, and shelter.

“Charleston will rebuild and do it with a beautiful spirit,” said Elizabeth Inabinet, district manager, Southern Bell, Charleston, speaking from an emergency center. However, before rebuilding can take place, citizens are first faced with survival.

She told how the phone company, which managed to keep almost all dial-tone service up, partly because 79 percent of the lines were buried, was working 20-hour days to solve those phone problems caused by lack of power and other causes. Helicopter delivery of diesel fuel to power central-office generators, phone banks for public areas, and workers brought in by barge to splice cable are among Southern Bell’s priorities now.

DuBignon W. Smith, MIS executive for a local government agency, said that when he returned to the city after evacuating, “Very few buildings were left undamaged; trees were gone; this hurricane changed the landscape.” Yet, despite winds that blew the roof off his agency’s building and destroyed the top floor, he found data processing damage was limited to one waterlogged keyboard.

Before the storm knocked out the power supply, Smith’s agency backed up one IBM Corp. System/36, powered it down and covered it with plastic. Another S/36 needed to run emergency municipal services ran off a heavy-duty generator.

Power returned to the building on the fifth day after the hurricane hit, and the system came up without problems, Smith said.

Smith noted that budgetary constraints made a full-scale disaster recovery plan with hot-site facilities unfeasible, so the agency was fortunate that damage was not more extensive and power was restored sooner than expected.

IMPACT NOT YET KNOWN

Because the hurricane caused such widespread devastation in Charleston, and because some business people had not yet been able to reach their facilities, the full extent of data processing damages will not be known for a while.

Mid-size companies and smaller corporate divisions, which rely on computers but may not have had the resources for disaster-recovery preparations, were said to be most at risk of business failure from data processing interruption.

Both IBM and Digital Equipment Corp. executives based in the area said they had not as yet found more than scattered destruction of systems, but they expected that users may soon report a need for replacement processors. Although major problems so far are few, the companies have marshaled massive resources from throughout their organizations and are visiting and calling sites to ensure users are protected. Both said they performed extensive preparation in the week preceding the storm.

Witnesses at Charlotte, N.C., 150 miles inland, which also suffered extensive damage and power outages, but on a lesser scale, said the data processing impact of the storm there better shows the importance of adequate disaster recovery planning than does Charleston. Charleston’s damages, the destruction of a whole area, exceed the scope of most contingency plans; Charlotte’s situation is more like what a company usually has to protect itself against.

Rex Critzer, in charge of the data center and network for Royal Insurance in Charlotte, said Hugo knocked out power at 5:20 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 22. An uninterruptible power supply brought down Royal’s two IBM 600S processors in an orderly way. Before power came back Saturday afternoon, the company had lined up a diesel generator for shipment from New Jersey and had loaded two trucks with tapes for transfer to Wayne, Pa-based Sungard Recovery Services Co.’s hot-site facility in Philadelphia.

THEN POWER RETURNED

Through the remainder of the weekend, up to 110 staff members, aided by IBM and Duke Power Co. staff, worked to catch up for lost time and restore data processing. By Monday morning, catching up had been completed. Critzer was thankful that the two days of processing time were lost on a weekend, instead of on a Monday, which would have been even more devastating to the business.

Because the company was performing quarterly and monthly closes, CICS transaction rates reached new highs. “People really pulled together; we’re still in shock and awe” at what the team was able to accomplish, Critzer said. He praised IBM for flying in extra engineers to help Royal and other Charlotte companies. He also said he will reconsider buying a generator.

For many companies in the Charleston area, the question was “Is there any commerce to transact?” amid the devastation, said Ray Hipp, president, Comdisco Inc.’s Disaster Recovery Services, Rosemont, Il. Hipp said some of his clients were so devastated they were not yet able to declare a disaster and resume data processing at a hot site. They were unable to do any business at all.

By the middle of last week, although no client had yet declared a disaster, Hipp expected some disasters to be declared by clients. "More than a dozen clients suffered significant data center damage, such as caved-in walls, water damage and downed networks," he said. "For users with diesel generators, obtaining fuel was difficult," he added.

IBM and DEC were among the suppliers reporting massive efforts to help users. IBM’s Robert McCants, marketing branch manager for the Carolinas, in Charleston, said IBM contacted every customer it could before the storm to ensure proper backup and preparation. On the Monday before the storm, the company built a battle plan assuming the worst. The company is now contacting each user to help with any problems, although some are not yet in a position to call for help.

McCants said IBM has facilities on alert in Tampa, Fla., and Washington, as well as at local sites, with the corporate jet ready to fly users to different IBM sites. Equipment will be available to replace that damaged and to add processing power for such users as insurance companies. The worst processor damage so far has been a destroyed S/36, McCants said.

The company has obtained generators for users, arranged alternative processing sites to help get the payroll out and solved lots of medium-size problems. However, more serious computer problems are likely to be reported as people return to damaged businesses, many in areas still under martial law, McCants said.

“We’re very fortunate at this point,” he said. At the IBM branch itself, power, along with the phone switch, is still down. In human terms, “Things are simplified; everyone’s got the same problem, so they are willing to help out a neighbor,” he said.

Reporting from Columbia, S.C., 75 miles from Charleston, DEC’s Cary Simon, customer services manager for Eastern South Carolina, said the company is calling its 700 and 800 users in the area and visiting those without phone service. The first priority was to help get DEC equipment back up in hospitals, utilities, and other “lifesaving” facilities. The corporation has been put on alert all the way up to the manufacturing line to handle damage caused by the hurricane, and additional staff is in place in the Carolinas.

SLOW PROCESS

Although many users’ equipment was located in “fairly well-protected computer rooms” and no major break-downs have so far been reported, it is a slow process to verify that systems are safe. Travel is still difficult, power remains down and phones are out.

“We fully expect to replace some systems,” said DEC’s Bill Miller, product support manager, southern area. He said some of the worst problems may arise when power is restored, because computers are sensitive to power fluctuations: Short circuits and other electrical problems may be present. Disk drives and memory are likely to be damaged. Also, when machines are shut down and temperatures rise in data centers, machines, as well as data on magnetic tape, can be damaged.

Rich Nadler, vice president of consulting for Bis Cap International, Norwell, Mass., and a disaster recovery expert, was in Charlotte when the hurricane hit. He said Charlotte, with floods and the power loss, represents the kind of disaster that other cities could face and for which companies need to prepare.

Nadler said large companies with the money for disaster planning, hot sites, and generators, were least likely to be put out of business or harmed by a disaster. Such firms may also have pull with the utility company to get power restored.


This article was reprinted with permission from MIS Week, Volume 10, Number 39, and is copyright by Fairchild Publications, all rights reserved.

This article adapted from Vol. 2, No. 4, p. 8.

Read 1884 times Last modified on October 11, 2012