REDMOND, Wash., Aug. 29, 2006 — One year later the magnitude is still overwhelming: More than 1,800 dead, over 500,000 people displaced from their homes, and 90,000 square miles of country impacted by its force. Hurricane Katrina left an indelible image of nature’s fury upon the world, ranking it as the most costly hurricane in the history of the United States, and the second most deadly (the first being Hurricane San Felipe Segundo, which struck in 1928, killing 6,000 people). Katrina was also the first disaster in which an entire metropolitan area was evacuated and people could not return for several months. Microsoft and a consortium of other technology companies responded to urgent requests for assistance and have since met with the American Red Cross – one of the primary disaster relief organizations for Katrina – to lay out plans for how to partner more effectively, and discuss how ‘stop-gap’ measures implemented in the moment could increase the organization’s long-term disaster response capabilities.
When the hurricane struck, the Red Cross responded by meeting survivors’ basic needs including shelter, food and counseling. To this end, the Red Cross relied on the work of more than 225,000 volunteers – more than five times the size of its typical response team, and set up more than 1,400 shelters across 27 states. The logistics required for this relief effort were enormous, let alone what was needed to process the surge in donations: on a typical day the Red Cross handles about 1,000 individual donations; at one point following Katrina, that number reached 943,653.
A wide array of businesses, nonprofits and government agencies also moved quickly to offer assistance and donate hardware, software, technical expertise and human resources to support the Red Cross disaster response. Technology companies also provided online tools for people around the world to make a financial contribution to the relief effort, and to help families and friends displaced by the storm locate each other.
Steve Cooper, CIO of the Red Cross, says while his organization provides much of the infrastructure for response, volunteers’ expertise and the outpouring of humanity figure prominently in meeting a victim’s emotional and physical needs. “The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was a perfect example of a partnership in action and how the expertise of partners and volunteers can help create the foundation for future improvements in disaster response capabilities,” Cooper says.
Partnership in Action
Microsoft and its employees got involved immediately through the deployment of consultants, developers, technical analysts and customer service teams. In partnership with the Red Cross and the San Diego SuperComputer Center, Microsoft developed Katrinasafe.org, the Web site that offered survivors, who were separated from family and friends, a place to post information about their location. Jim Carroll, a Microsoft database architect from Birmingham, Ala., worked with a team of seven colleagues for almost four days straight to get KatrinaSafe.org up and running. In the days since Katrina, more than 340,000 people have logged on and used the Web site tool.
Even after the 2005 hurricane season ended, Microsoft continued working on the system to make it better. A year later, the Red Cross and Microsoft have developed a state-of-the-art tool that will be the standard for exchanging welfare information in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. The new Web site, known as Safe and Well, is up and running and will be available for faster communication during times of crisis. The site is accessible through www.redcross.org.
Microsoft employees also pitched in to improve the logistics of medical relief efforts. Due to the large number of emergency shelters scattered throughout the region – there were 193 shelters in New Orleans alone – the Red Cross was challenged to provide information on such things as supply levels, the number of people at each shelter, and when survivors needed medical attention. Microsoft mobility specialist Dawn Gagnon enlisted the help of family and friends to program 180 Microsoft SmartPhones. The provision of the phones to 150 National Guard troops and 30 doctors at the Red Cross triage center in Baton Rouge enabled e-mail, instant message and phone calls for quicker emergency responses.
Microsoft employees also helped with logistical communications by increasing the capacity of the Red Cross network by 400 percent and deploying three of Microsoft’s satellite-equipped “Across America” buses to Red Cross relief centers in Louisiana and Mississippi. Consequently, information could be shared more quickly between Red Cross shelters and offices, and with suppliers and partners of the organization.
Microsoft CIO Ron Markezich notes that even though Microsoft technology helped fulfill some of the needs of the Red Cross, such examples show that it was ultimately the commitment and expertise of Microsoft employees, working in collaboration with the Red Cross, which carried the day. “Individuals and teams across the company devoted themselves to responding to Katrina, sometimes working through the night or involving friends and family to complete a project for the relief efforts,” says Markezich.
Building Tomorrow’s Success
The Red Cross and other organizations had no control over many of the obstacles they faced. To help prepare for future disasters and the unforeseen challenges they will undoubtedly create, the Red Cross issued a report in June that assessed where it fell short of its goals and how it could respond more efficiently the next time a disaster strikes.
Additionally, representatives of the Red Cross and each of the technology consortium members met to discuss lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina, identify the infrastructure improvements that are most pressing for future disaster response, and determine how companies can work together with the Red Cross on a long-term basis. Based on these discussions, the Red Cross identified three key areas for increased technology investments, which included adopting some of the solutions Microsoft developed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
These improvements include:
Creating an emergency call-center with the capacity to process 1 million cases in 10 days (or 100,000 cases per day), and the maximum capacity of 2 million cases.
Improving response capabilities by pre-positioning computers, satellite equipment, and phones, radios and other communications technology in 21 cities, within nine coastal states.
Adopting a disaster welfare system based on Katrinasafe.org. This Web site, now known as Safe and Well (https://disastersafe.redcross.org/), allows people to search for information on a family member, or survivors to post relevant information about their location and physical condition, all in a manner that complies with privacy and child protection laws. People will also be able to register by phone if Internet access isn’t readily available.
The investments the Red Cross is making span the organization, from implementing new guidelines for how volunteers can get involved, to how each of the 804 chapters in the Red Cross handle finances. Regardless of the improvement, technology will play a key role in the Red Cross’ improved disaster response capabilities. Technology vendors, solutions providers and other companies can help organizations like the Red Cross respond by keeping in mind what is critical for an efficient disaster response: the ability to quickly assess damage levels and identify the most immediate needs, and a reliable communications network to share the assessments, supply and survivor populations levels, and available funds between workers on the front line, the supply chain and an organization’s headquarters.
The bottom line – while there’s no such thing as being totally prepared for all of life’s emergencies, the Red Cross is using the lessons of 2005 hurricanes to dramatically improve its ability to respond to future disasters.