ORLANDO, Fla. -- Never in his wildest dreams did Mike Mayer imagine that he'd be charged with the task of salvaging the data centers of some of the Gulf Coast's most vital organizations. Then again, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have turned the lives of everyone in the Gulf Coast upside down, and rendered the unthinkable a daily reality.
Mayer is the co-founder of Baton Rouge, La.-based CMA Technology Solutions, an IT consulting and services firm that supports customers in the Gulf Coast, including local and state agencies. Though Baton Rouge was spared the brunt of the storm itself, upwards of 20 of CMA's clients, many of whom rode out the storm in Baton Rouge, found their mission-critical IT facilities devastated by the storm and needed to get their businesses back on their feet as quickly as possible. Many of them turned to CMA for on-site hardware, software and personnel assistance.
"We woke up on Monday, like the rest of Louisiana, and thought 'Oh my God.' Who thought the levees were going to break? It was like they dropped two nuclear bombs on the Gulf South," Mayer said. "The entire region was out of business, and unless they had a strategy to get back in business quickly [they were in a lot of trouble] … Nobody was totally prepared for destruction that massive."
CMA's power returned one day after Katrina blew through the region, and from the moment the lights came back on, the company was forced to go to work. Residents fleeing the city needed banks to be operational so they could get access to their money. Insurance companies needed their systems back on track to start the process of sorting out claims.
When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast at the end of August, it left 80% of New Orleans under water. Just weeks later, Hurricane Rita struck the Louisiana-Texas border, causing additional catastrophic damage.
According to a report this week from ISO Properties Inc., an insurance risk and data firm based in Jersey City, N.J., Hurricane Katrina alone is expected to cost U.S. property/casualty insurers an estimated $34.4 billion in insured property losses, making it the costliest U.S. catastrophe ever. Exact numbers on the amount of revenue lost due to down data centers is unknown, but experts suggest it is in the hundreds of millions.
One of CMA's first orders of business was to help get one of its biggest municipal clients, Jefferson Parish, La., back on its feet. Parish's IT director sought shelter in Baton Rouge, and with no way to get back to his data center, which sat powerless in a region ordered closed off by government officials, CMA offered him space in its office and one of its own servers to use.
The company was able to help Jefferson Parish set up an alternative Web site, jeffparish.net, to provide information and services for residents fortunate enough to have access to the Internet. One of the most important resources the new site provided was an employee locator. After just one day, the town was able to locate over 200 of its workers.
CMA also provided support for the Orleans Parish sheriff's department and Canal Barge, one of the Gulf Coast's largest shipping concerns.
To deal with the crush of activity, CMA brought in three extra Intel boxes to its existing data center and added resources from the IBM Crisis Response team to its iSeries servers. The company also consolidated its footprint to help stranded customers by expanding existing virtualization capabilities and merging many of its own applications into a smaller footprint to open up space for customers.
Though the IT community was as prepared for an natural disaster as any other industry, CMA CEO Chad LeMaire said the destruction wrought by Katrina was such that even companies with solid disaster recovery plans were left struggling to stay in business.
"Even if your data center was on the 42nd floor, as one of our customers' [data center] was, you can't get to it," LeMaire said.
The weeks following the storm have been extremely trying on LeMaire and his staff, many of whom were dealing not only with an exhausting workload, but their own personal issues caused by the storm. Mayer's parents' home was destroyed by the storm, and LeMaire is currently hosting 20 people in his Sulphur, La., home.
Hurricane Rita has only added to the workload. LeMaire said CMA has been unable to reach at least a handful of CMA customers in the Beaumont and Lake Charles regions, where Rita did most of her damage. Although he hasn't spoken to those clients, LeMaire is operating under the assumption that they'll need the same kind of help the company's Katrina victims did.
But according to Mayer, CMA and its employees are already in the frame of mind needed to get through whatever will come their way.
"Your adrenaline kicks in and takes over. It's almost so surreal you don't even realize what's going on. You just do what you have to do when you have to do it. The attitude most people had was that we just want to help," Mayer said. "Our employees are good people. And they gave up time, working weekends and around the clock to help because lives were at stake."
Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Luke Meredith, News Writer