Hurricane prompts FEMA network upgrade

As Hurricane Bonnie pounded the North Carolina coast late last month, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's World Wide Web site received nearly 2.5 million hits a day— almost 10 times greater than regular daily activity.

When the number of daily hits temporarily caused the site to crash, FEMA brought in technicians from Bell Atlantic Federal, Washington, D.C., to replace the agency's T-1 network connection, which had been overwhelmed by the surge in activity, with high-bandwidth fiber-optic cable.

Brian Ward, system manager for Bell Atlantic Federal, said the fiber-optic cable increased the FEMA Web site's ability to move data from 1.5 million megabytes/sec to 10 million megabytes/sec. "It allows the transaction to be faster,'' Ward said. "T-1 was not adequate to accommodate the amount of inquiries.''

An increasing number of people are using FEMA's Web site ( as an information source. The agency decided to upgrade the network after receiving messages from users who had been thwarted in accessing the site for hours during the week that Hurricane Bonnie approached the U.S. coastline.

With more than 11,000 pages, the FEMA site has grown to include an extensive online library and sections on Project Impact: Building Disaster-Resistant Communities, the National Flood Insurance Program and the U.S. Fire Administration. The site also features a FEMA for Kids section, where children can learn what to do before, during and after a disaster.

"We were maxed out,'' a FEMA spokesman said. "[The hurricane] was a single event. What will happen if we have more than one big disaster? We needed to expand the capabilities.''

FEMA was inundated with users, in part because other organizations referred online readers to FEMA's Web site for hurricane updates.

For example, the National Hurricane Center in Miami referred users to the FEMA Web site because its own site temporarily malfunctioned because of the high volume of traffic, said Mark DeMaria, chief of technical support at the NHC.

"Our ability to get operational data— weather advisory, watches, warnings— was being compromised by too much Web traffic,'' DeMaria said. "We have a communication line for us to put out the forecast, and we share that line with our Web servers. We're currently re-evaluating our own Web site.''

Ward said FEMA's T-1 connection was developed during the early years of the Internet and is at the low end of high-speed services.

Ward said it took Bell Atlantic Federal 17 hours to install the optic fiber, a task that normally takes about 45 days. "FEMA told us the situation was important,'' Ward said.


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