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Volume 32, Issue 1

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Technology-dependent companies in Houston such as Internet service providers, telephone switch operations, and data and call centers suffered in early June’s disastrous flood caused by Tropical Storm Allison. However, tenants at WiredZone’s facility in Westchase, which caters to the needs of bandwidth-intensive companies, remained dry.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that Allison dumped nearly 37 inches of rain in Houston, with one area receiving 19.58 inches in a 24-hour period. Federal estimates of the damage caused by the storm have reached nearly $5 billion, making it the most expensive tropical storm in U.S. history. Damages in the Houston area include:

• $2.04 billion to public facilities, especially to the Texas Medical Center;
• $1.76 billion to residential properties and;
• $1.08 billion to businesses.

Flooding, lightning and tornadoes associated with the storm system have claimed at least 41 lives (23 of them in Texas) and left another 13 people injured.

“The loss of life and the property damage caused by the flood was tragic, but many of the service disruptions endured by telecommunications and other technology companies are evidence that a property must have more systems in place to deal with such a deluge,” said Jud Pankey, president of Dallas-based WiredZone.

“Because our buildings stress redundancy and security, we have measures in place to ensure uninterrupted service – no power failures, no water infiltration to damage sensitive equipment.”
WiredZone owns technology centers in Houston, Dallas, Seattle and Tulsa that include features, such as: redundant power supply and HVAC systems; back-up generators and batteries; and multiple fiber and phone service providers. What helped 5959 Corporate Drive in Houston remain dry is a system of high-volume pumps and a sub-structure de-watering system designed to handle a deluge of water as happened with Tropical Storm Allison.

The nearly 570,000-square-foot building is surrounded by 18 pumps, including four with a capacity of 1,800 gallons per minute, that helped keep the building dry in the face of a tropical storm that inundated many other buildings. The pumps were able to handle the floodwaters, which were not as severe as those downtown, and even WiredZone’s ground floor, which is below grade, remained dry.

Flooding elsewhere ruined miles of cabling and millions of dollars in networking equipment, and many buildings remained closed for weeks following the disaster and are in need of complete information technology makeovers.

Houston’s Memorial Hermann Healthcare System, which had hired a professional disaster planning firm a year ago, and had one of its basement data centers sitting on a raised floor, still fell victim to the storm when cabling under the floor got wet and put the facility out of action for several days.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has installed three, 1,600 kilovolt-amp transformers there to keep the facility operating until commercial power is restored. The hospital has had no electrical power since flooding damaged its substations.

The National Disaster Medical System sent a 25-bed, MASH-like mobile medical support hospital and 88 health care professionals from Lackland Air Force Base to provide emergency health care for Houston.

This is the first-time an Expeditionary Medical Support Squadron has been deployed to provide care for a civilian population. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Emergency Preparedness leads the National Disaster Medical System. They are in partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense, Veteran’s Affairs and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We are the medical ‘911’ for all national catastrophic disasters,” said Lt. Cmdr. Mick Cote of OEP. “We responded to Texas’ request for assistance with the Houston flood by bringing in almost 350 health professionals from throughout the nation to provide all levels of health care services for the people of Houston.”

Downtown, an energy company in the Bank of America Building relocated its trading floor staff and computers to a local hotel. Accounting firms in Pennzoil Place set up operations in other offices and kept staff in touch through cell phones, e-mail and pagers.

PentaSafe Software’s offices in the Park Towers North development near the Galleria were without power, leaving its more than 300 employees with no way to communicate with customers or each other.

Employees of the Houston data center for Internap Network Services had to ferry containers of diesel fuel from outlying gas stations to keep generators running and the company’s servers in operation.

Restoring telephone service for most businesses was a priority, as was finding a way to communicate with staff. One company put up a Web site soon after the storm to provide information to workers from home, while voice mail and e-mail systems were restored at the office.

The Houston Chronicle reported that “one of the busiest companies in town has been Southwestern Bell, which had as many as 3,000 employees in the field drying out, pulling out and reinstalling miles of phone and data lines. The biggest jobs for Southwestern Bell continue to be rebuilding the phone networks in the Medical Center and in downtown buildings such as Pennzoil Place at 700 Louisiana and the Bank of America building. In Pennzoil Place, technicians have to pull all 2,700 pairs of phone cable that run throughout the building by hand and replace them, an around-the-clock process.”

The disruption caused by Tropical Storm Allison has had many executives re-examining their real estate needs and disaster preparations.

“We’ve gotten several calls from tech companies affected by the flood who are seeking secure, and dry, temporary space. I expect some of those could become permanent tenants once they know they’ll have peace of mind that another disaster like this won’t affect them at WiredZone,” said Andrew Spence, Vice President of the Technology Practice Group at Cushman Realty Corp. in Houston and WiredZone’s leasing agent here.

Craig McDaniel, APR, is a Dallas-based writer and public relations counselor with more than 20 years experience in journalism and public relations. He is vice president of Michael A. Burns & Associates Inc., and is a former U.S. Air Force public affairs officer.