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Volume 27, Issue 3

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Law Firm Learns From First-Hand Hurricane Experience

The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season was the most active in recorded history. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast of the United States as a Category 5 storm, ultimately becoming the costliest and one of the five most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. The toll stands at more than 1,800 lives lost and upwards of $81 billion dollars in damages.

That season also saw Hurricane Rita, the fourth-most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded and the most powerful tropical cyclone observed in the Gulf of Mexico. Rita made landfall in late September as a Category 3 storm. New Orleans had just started the painstaking recovery process, and evacuated residents were told to not return home. The already-collapsed levees couldn’t sustain the storm surge, causing the city major re-flooding. Rita has made history as the ninth costliest storm in U.S. history.

Almost three years to the exact date of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, Hurricane Gustav was poised to hit the still-recovering city of New Orleans. Hurricane Gustav formed off the coast of Haiti and caused unending destruction along its path through the Gulf, causing the largest evacuation in U.S. history. More than 2 million people frantically left their homes to escape the storm’s path. The storm was responsible for more than $4.3 billion in damages in Louisiana alone. In Baton Rouge, La., which is approximately 80 miles northwest of New Orleans, wind damage from Gustav was the worst in history. The town was completely shut down for days.

The impact of these very active and devastating hurricane seasons compelled many companies to review and revise their business continuity plans in order to prepare for future storms. Below is an actual account from Deutsch Kerrigan & Stiles (DK&S) about how Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Gustav shaped their business continuity plan.

Lessons Learned

Headquartered in New Orleans with offices in Monroe, La., and Gulfport, Miss., DK&S is a premier regional law firm concentrating on legal counseling and complex, high-stakes litigation. The firm’s 60 counselors and litigators practice in areas of civil litigation, commercial litigation, construction, labor and employment, toxic tort and environmental, marine and energy, and professional liability law.

DK&S’ clients include local, national, and international businesses, ranging in size from Fortune 500 companies to small, emerging businesses. The firm also represents state and local governmental bodies, non-profit organizations, and individuals. DK&S is dedicated to providing unwavering counsel to their clients around the clock – and that includes during major hurricanes. Our IT infrastructure is critical to all business activities including drafting, storing, and filing with the courts, communications with employees, as well as administrative activities including timekeeping and billing.

After Katrina made landfall in 2005, both their New Orleans and Gulfport offices were severely damaged and unusable for about a month – forcing them to relocate to another city. The Gulfport office had to find temporary offices for two years while the building was being renovated. The firm lost contact with all of our employees and clients, and our entire workflow process was broken. The firm went into immediate disaster mode to find a new place to store business-critical documents and files. Normally these were stored on several servers, which were both without power. We began sending our business-critical files using an online backup, but quickly learned it could not handle the volume of documents generated on a daily basis. The firm generated so much content the remote copy was never completed by the end of the night, so it wasn’t even working as a backup solution. In addition, the firm’s vital e-mail system needed to be protected.

Post Katrina: The Plan

After Katrina, our entire IT infrastructure needed to be revamped. We constructed an RFP to develop and implement a business continuity plan that included a complete technology overhaul.

DK&S determined what personnel and applications were crucial for business continuity during a disaster. Through this process we identified three mission critical servers that were needed to ensure availability – the e-mail server, file server, and document management server.

The firm relies heavily on e-mail as its major form of communication. DK&S has 60 attorneys and 30 paralegals that use e-mail to communicate with clients on a daily basis. It also has approximately 30 additional staff personnel who conduct day-to-day business operations using e-mail. Like most business today, we are completely reliant upon IT infrastructure for document management and e-mail for internal and external communications. If something broke off access to either resource, business would essentially cease to operate.

DK&S went from a single server location to co-located servers – it was a major project that took most of 2006 to complete. We determined several servers that supported their e-mail and documents that were crucial and needed to be protected to eliminate unacceptable downtime and provide their firm’s employees with the business continuity support they needed. We wanted a solution that provided the IT staff with application awareness, intelligence and automation that supports our business continuity and disaster recovery plan. We also wanted a solution that would give us a single point of management of control and one that was fully automated – one that did not require anyone to write additional scripts in advance of a failover – one that simply fails over seamlessly.

A disaster recovery plan was designed specifically to support three failover scenarios including:
  • A hardware failure on one server. DK&S needed a solution to automatically activate a replicated server ensuring continuous access to key applications, the e-mail server, file server, and document management server.
  • A pending threat. Employees need the option to manually fail over all of the mission-critical applications to a remote data center server to reverse the data flow so those servers replicate only to New Orleans.
  • Failure on all three servers. DK&S had to have the ability to leverage the remote data center servers to automatically take over and provide uninterrupted access to e-mail, the file server, and documents.
In 2008, the first true test of the new plan came during Hurricane Gustav in the midst of a mandatory evacuation. DK&S simply and seamlessly failed over to the disaster sites and the firm’s employees continued to work with complete access to files and e-mail. A week later when employees returned to New Orleans, they switched the servers back. An internal survey conducted regarding the evacuation process, including IT’s performance, did not generate a single negative comment.

Like a fire drill, every year we test our entire IT infrastructure, which includes approximately 10 servers, to check that everything is connected and to remind us of the process. It is important to go through the planning process before a disaster strikes, because if you try to make decisions on the fly you will be in trouble. Hurricanes along the Gulf Coast and eastern seaboard are a fact of life and need to be taken seriously. We strongly encourage all companies in these regions to be ready because hurricanes will force you and your staff out on a moment’s notice.

Don A. Champagne is director of administration for Deutsch, Kerrigan & Stiles, a law firm with offices in New Orleans and Monroe, La., and Gulfport, Miss. He is ultimately responsible for all aspects of operations for the firm, including information technology, human resources, marketing and communications, finance, and building and office services.

Andrew Barnes is senior vice president of corporate development for Neverfail. Barnes joined Neverfail in March 2007 bringing extensive experience in marketing, product management, and pre-sales through his 25 years in the software industry. In his new role, Barnes will be responsible for Neverfail’s branding, marketing, product management, and Web presence.