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Volume 31, Issue 4

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Monday, 29 October 2007 03:03

Reacting to the Flood

Written by  Michael Gomoll, Chi/Cor Information Management, Inc.
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In 1899 the city of Chicago started work on a series of interconnecting tunnels located approximately forty feet beneath street level. This series of tunnels ran below the Chicago River and underneath the Chicago business district, simply known as The Loop. The tunnels housed a series of railroad tracks that were used to haul coal and to remove ashes from the many office buildings in the downtown area. The underground system served Chicago well through the 1940’s when other power sources replaced the coal furnaces. These tunnels went forgotten until April 13th, 1992.

Construction workers had been working along the Chicago River for some time. One of the projects included placing support pillars into the Chicago River bottom.

It is theorized that during the placement of one of these pillars, a portion of the turn-of-the-century coal delivery system was damaged. A hole the size of a large automobile formed in the bottom of the river and punctured the tunnel ceiling.

Exactly when the rupture took place is unclear, but on the morning of Monday April 13th several Loop office buildings began to report significant amounts of water in basement and sub-basement facilities. The flooding was caused by massive amounts of river water pouring into the maze of underground tunnels. The tunnels led directly into the basements of many of the older Loop buildings.

Marshall Field’s flagship store, located on State Street in the heart of the loop, reported flooding in sub-basements two and three with water levels reaching 40 feet. With heating and electrical systems located in these basement areas, not to mention a substantial amount of valuable inventory, the threat was significant.

Most of the City and County governmental buildings are also located in the Loop. As with the Marshall Field's building, the City/County utilities were threatened by extensive flooding. Valuable assets were also in jeopardy, but in this case the assets took the form of valuable government records. The records existed in hard copy and microfiche form and contained a wealth of historical information about the nations third largest city.

Chicago’s financial district, including the Chicago Board of Trade and Chicago Mercantile Exchange, was also threatened by the torrent of water. The threat of the flooding came not so much from the water itself, but from the impact the flood could have on the extensive electrical and computer networks.

It doesn’t require an advance degree in electrical engineering to imagine the potential safety risks to office buildings, some over 100 stories high with thousands of tenants, if the electrical system is compromised. By mid-day, the entire loop business district was evacuated.

CHI/COR Information Management’s corporate headquarters is located in the heart of the loop and was also affected by the flooding. Located in the southwest corner of the loop, adjacent to the Sears Tower, its offices were on the outer edge of the affected area.

The first order of business for the Executive Committee was to determine what business processes were threatened, and based upon a business impact analysis, initiate the appropriate recovery steps. The Executive committee highlighted the following recovery processes:
1) Evaluate The Threat To Personnel
2) Activate Customer Support Network Procedures
3) Prepare Off-Site Facilities
4) Back-up And Secure Information Systems
Here is how each of these areas was addressed.

Evaluate The Threat To Personnel

It was determined that the threat to personal safety was minimal at the time of disaster declaration, though it was decided that eventually complete evacuation would be a necessity.

The buildings elevator system was scheduled to be shut down by 1:30 p.m. To help avoid a bottleneck at 1:25, all “non-essential” personnel were evacuated in stages as their recovery functions were completed.
All employees were kept informed of evacuation alternatives and timeframes. By following the predefined evacuation procedures and routes, all “non-essential” personnel were evacuated well before the 1:30 deadline.
This orderly evacuation helped make the subsequent evacuation of the emergency staff quick and efficient when the time came.

Activate Customer Support Network Procedures

After all personal safety issues were addressed, the Customer Support Team went into action. Their first order of business was to re-route all customer support lines to a cellular telephone network. Once these cellular channels were in place, the Customer Support Team worked in tandem with the Off-site Facilities Team to ensure that support personnel would have continuous access to their various support tools and databases.

Prepare Off-Site Facilities

Our plan called for the availability of personal computers at several off-site locations for members of the support and development teams. Many support and development personnel have access to PCs at home. The Customer Support plan called for the staggered dispersion of personnel to off-site locations. This tiered approach to the evacuation helped to maintain continuous availability of all support functions, as no time was lost because personnel was in transit. The transportation of support personnel was coordinated by the Facilities Evacuation Team.

Back-up and Secure Information Systems

The Data Center Team immediately instituted the necessary back-up and protection of critical business applications and data. The back-up of the entire day's activities was initiated and that information was available should the need arise to re-locate to the hotsite facility. All systems and equipment were then secured to protect against any threat caused by the flooding and possible electrical problems.

CHI/COR President Rick Effgen commented “We were fortunate in many ways. We had sufficient warning time, sufficient evacuation time, and the availability of all of our recovery teams. These factors, combined with extensive planning, allowed us to ‘practice what we preach.’ We were able to continue all major business functions during the crisis and return to full operations the following business day”.

The ramifications of this disaster, both physical and financial, will be felt throughout Chicago for a long time to come.

This article adapted from Vol. 5 #2.

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