Agency IT provides relief after Katrina

<b>At VA, e-health system streamlines patient evacuation; other agencies support relief efforts in various ways</b>

As Hurricane Katrina pounded the buildings and flooded the streets of New Orleans, the medical staff from the New Orleans VA Medical Center—located near the Superdome—didn't have to worry about lugging thousands of patient folders to higher ground.

Instead, medical-center employees spent their time worrying about how best to evacuate patients from the distressed region—knowing their treatment records were safe and secure in the Veterans Affairs Department’s electronic patient system.

The Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture program, or VistA, captures patient information and makes it available for clinical and administrative tasks at any VA medical facility.

As VA airlifted veterans who were patients in New Orleans to VA hospitals in Houston and other locations in the South as a result of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, officials also transported the center’s VistA backup tapes to the Houston VA Medical Center.

There, VA contractor Hewlett-Packard Co. restored the entire patient record database, said Robert Kolodner, VHA’s acting chief health informatics officer. “It will operate as it did the day before the hurricane.”

In addition to the New Orleans VA hospital, the Jackson and Biloxi, Miss., VA hospitals lost connectivity to the clinical network, leaving them to operate as islands.

Although Biloxi could not retrieve data from other VA hospitals, VistA, including electronic patient records, is fully functional within the hospital. VA will restore connectivity to the Jackson and Biloxi facilities as soon as possible, Kolodner said.

In the interim, VA made sure that pharmacy and allergy data was available to all sites so other VA providers could refill veterans’ prescriptions.

With VA’s system of electronic health records, patients’ full information, including medications and physician treatment orders, are accessible to any VA provider to which patients are transported.

“For all those people who will be scattered around the country, when they walk into a VA hospital and say, ‘I was getting care in New Orleans,’ their records will be available to pull up on the screen at whatever VA provider they go to,” Kolodner said.

IT was a critical enabler at a number of agencies responding to Katrina:
Agriculture Department

Adhering to its disaster recovery plan, USDA’s National Finance Center picked up operations where Hurricane Katrina cut them off. NFC has restored its payroll processing and much of its Web site operations.

Systems were minimally available shortly after Katrina devastated New Orleans, because NFC moved its computer operations to its disaster recovery site in Philadelphia and business operations to near Dallas. NFC IT personnel restored operations with magnetic tapes containing its most recently updated information.

NFC IT personnel completed payroll processing for 500,000 federal employees just hours before Katrina slammed into the New Orleans area, then shut down operations and fled the city for its backup location. “Federal workers received their pay as usual,” USDA spokesman Ed Loyd said.
NFC is on schedule in processing federal employee data for the next payroll. Agriculture’s Employee Personal Page also is available again.

NFC provides administrative, financial and record-keeping services, and data center technology support for some Agriculture bureaus and non-Agriculture agency customers.

NFC’s disaster recovery site in Philadelphia worked with customers who use dedicated circuits to connect to NFC and did not have a dedicated circuit to the Philadelphia site. Customers’ secured VPN connections to New Orleans have also been re-established at the alternate site.

NFC currently has a subscription service for disaster recovery with SunGard Data Systems Inc. of Wayne, Pa. The process, which is updated weekly, entails shipping tapes and bringing a skeletal staff to the alternate facility to set up operations.

Agriculture has had plans, originally set for June 2006, to move NFC’s data center equipment and co-locate it at the department’s National IT Center in Kansas City, Mo. Much of NFC’s financial data already resides at the Kansas City data center, Loyd said.

NFC suspended its processing operations for the Thrift Savings Plan, but TSP participants could still request some transactions via the Agriculture Web site. NFC turned over operations to the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board until it can resume operations.

Agriculture also set up pages on its Web site for employees who had evacuated New Orleans and surrounding Gulf areas and had Internet or phone access available to them to contact the department so it could populate an employee database and confirm their safety.


Several Army units have deployed to the devastated Gulf Coast region to provide vital communications support.

Forty-four members of the Army’s 93rd Signal Brigade, based in Fort Gordon, Ga., deployed to Camp Shelby, Miss., to set up communications equipment for the Joint Task Force Headquarters and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Some of that support includes both secure and nonsecure videoconferencing, as well as Internet and telephone access.

The brigade is part of the Army’s Network Enterprise Technology Command, based at Fort Huachuca, Ariz.

The hurricane not only wiped out much of the region’s IT infrastructure, but also could have an impact on troops stationed in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan. The service’s Program Executive Office for Enterprise Information Systems (PEO EIS) has been busy in Baton Rouge, La., reconnecting the Corps Theater Automatic Data Processing Center to the Defense Department’s nonclassified network, which was damaged by Katrina.

Without network connectivity, troops serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom were experiencing problems with logistics processes, according to a PEO EIS news release.

The Army set up two satellite terminals as part of its Combat Service Support Very Small Aperture Terminal (CSS VSAT) program at nearby Fort Polk, La., and sent contractors to Baton Rouge to network the terminals, helping the Standard Army Retail Supply System process supply orders from theater locations. About 80 percent of the contingency supply chain is back up and running, according to the release.

Energy Department

Energy is collecting information on possible price gouging at the gas pump through its Web site—and the public is responding in droves.

“The price gouging [site] is big; it allows people to tell us what they see with regard to gas prices in their regions,” said DOE spokesman Craig Stevens. “If there is the potential for price fixing or collusion, we pass it on to the Federal Trade Commission.”

Stevens added that the Gaswatch Web site, at, has “got a lot of play the last couple of days,” with more than 5,000 hits Sept. 1 alone.

With gas prices soaring following disruption of service at fuel refineries and in distribution systems, consumers are paying attention to every increase.

In addition to soliciting public input on gasoline prices, the department has been utilizing its Hurricane Visualization Room, Stevens added.

“It overlays locations of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, refineries, natural gas pipelines, the oil pipelines and any major electrical outlets,” such as a nuclear power site in the region, “with the effects of the storm, so we’re able to see exactly where some of our potential trouble spots are.”

One headache arising from the Category 4 storm: The administrative headquarters for the petroleum reserve is located in the region, and it was lost to flooding. “A lot of the information is on the server down there and not available now,” Stevens said.

Environmental Protection Agency

In an effort to assess the magnitude of spills and chemical releases along the Gulf Coast, including New Orleans and Baton Rouge, La., EPA launched Airborne Spectral Photometric Environmental Collection Technology (ASPECT) flight missions.

ASPECT planes give first responders almost real-time information on potential chemical releases. EPA and the Defense Department unveiled the planes in August 2003 at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The small planes are equipped with high-tech sensor systems that give emergency workers information regarding the size, shape, composition and concentration of gas plumes emanating from natural disasters, derailed trains, factory explosions or a terrorist attack.

The planes transmitted data to a comprehensive database of potential pollution sources EPA and the Gulf Coast states were compiling. Last week, EPA surveillance aircraft identified a large oil spill from a breached storage tank located in Chamlette, La. EPA is working with the tank’s owner, Murphy Oil Co. of El Dorado, Ark., to contain the oil and fix the tank.

Federal Emergency Management Agency/DOD

The Defense Department’s Theater Medical Information Program plans to ship handheld devices that give military medics instant access to patient records and potential treatment plans to FEMA workers to help them treat evacuees.

The Battlefield Medical Information System-Tactical (BMIS-T) “is on its way down there” to help FEMA teams treat casualties from the devastating storm, said Tommy Morris, project manager of the Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center, which developed the tool. TATRC is a part of the Army Medical Research and Materiel Command based in Fort Detrick, Md.

BMIS-T is a point-of-care diagnostic tool that runs on the Hewlett-Packard’s iPAQ Pocket PC. Using the handheld, medics can document a clinical session in seconds and individual patient accounts—such as immunization, dental records and medication information—are embedded in the system.

The device has been used in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

General Services Administration

GSA used its Web site to provide links to the latest hurricane news as well as information on disaster relief and assistance, donations and other resources. The portal also lets users search for family members and gives information on a broad range of related issues, including health and safety concerns and how to avoid Katrina donation scams.

Also, GSA’s site is being used as a call center for hurricane victims.

GSA has set up a process for vendors to register to provide hurricane relief services through federal or state government agencies through the portal.

Health and Human Services

HHS set up a Web site,, and toll-free number (866-KAT MEDI) through which health care professionals and relief personnel could volunteer for relief efforts. HHS was looking for physicians, nurses, mental-health workers, respiratory therapists, communications and IT professionals, among many others, who were willing to work under austere conditions and for long hours.

Office of Personnel Management

OPM launched a Web site to centralize in- formation for federal employees affected by the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

The site, at, has links to information about federal retiree benefits, donation of leave time to federal employees affected by the disaster and Katrina disaster relief, among other topics.

A toll-free assistance hotline number—(800) 307-8298—supplements the Web site for current and retired federal employees and annuitants in the Gulf Coast area.

Small Business Administration

SBA inspectors armed with tablet PCs are waiting for instructions from a new, centralized disaster management center to assess damage and process scores of loan applications from small businesses decimated by Hurricane Katrina.

Officials from SBA’s new Disaster Credit Management System (DCMS), which went live in November, are overseeing their first major crisis. DCMS lets the agency more efficiently handle the expected volume of claims and requests for assistance, a top SBA official said. The new system “changes the way we operate dramatically,” said DCMS director Michael Sorrento.

SBA inspectors performed data collection and assessments manually before the agency implemented the new system, Sorrento said. It would take days or weeks for the inspectors to receive their assignments and get their data to SBA officials to consider the loan requests.

SBA grants loans to small businesses impacted by disasters. The agency works closely with FEMA, and roughly 80 percent of the requests for FEMA assistance get routed to SBA, Sorrento said.

GCN staff writers Mary Mosquera, Dawn S. Onley, Robert Thormeyer and Patience Wait contributed to this report.


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