Masters of disaster

FCW has recognized more than a dozen individuals in government, industry and the nonprofit sector who responded to Hurricane Katrina and helped in the recovery.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 12:45 p.m. March 22, 2006, to reflect that Blanton Shepherd carried backup tapes of the VA’s electronic health records from New Orleans to Houston. Federal Computer Week previously reported that Charles Gephart handled that task. We apologize for the error.

For months now, people in Washington, D.C., and across the nation have debated what went wrong with the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina. The missteps and the inertia seemed to outrage everyone but surprise no one, fulfilling people’s worst expectations of the bureaucracy.

But the 2006 Federal 100 awards program tells another story. It tells of people who rose to the occasion, saving lives and ensuring that essential services were provided in the hours, days and weeks after the storm surged through the Gulf Coast region.

As is often the case, some of the most important work of responding to the disaster occurred before the storm actually struck. Quick-thinking people anticipated problems, even if they did not foresee the magnitude of the coming disaster.

Once the storm passed and people understood its impact, they began their most intense work. People nationwide mobilized all available resources to help first responders as they arrived on the scene. The need for communications equipment was especially great because the storm washed away much of the Gulf Coast region’s existing network infrastructure.

Federal agencies with offices in the region — the Navy, the National Finance Center and the Social Security Administration, among others — began the arduous process of assessing the damage to their facilities and devising plans to restore services. SSA was especially concerned, because people affected by the hurricane could not afford to wait for their Social Security checks.

Federal Computer Week has recognized more than a dozen individuals in government, industry and the nonprofit sector for responding to the disaster and helping in the recovery. It is an impressive group, but of course it is incomplete. We know many stories have yet to be told, and some may never be told.

The following anecdotes, drawn from our list of Federal 100 winners, remind us of the quiet heroics that often go unreported in the wake of a disaster.

Two days before Hurricane Katrina hit, Cyrus “Jerry” Lohfink of the New Orleans-based National Finance Center activated the center’s emergency plan and transferred business to Philadelphia, ensuring that federal workers continued to receive their paychecks.

Capt. Fred Mingo, commanding officer of the Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center in New Orleans, also played it safe, moving data-center operations to safer ground, in this case Fort Worth, Texas.

Charles Gephart, a chief information officer in the Veterans Health Administration, coordinated the restoration of the electronic health records (EHRs) database in Houston. Blanton Shepherd of the New Orleans Department of Veterans Affairs’ Medical Center shuttled backup tapes of the VA’s EHRs from New Orleans to a facility in Houston so doctors could access them a few days after the storm from any location.

Connie Vaughn, a network specialist at the Internal Revenue Service, got her big assignment on a Friday afternoon as the threat of Katrina became clear. She helped convert hundreds of IRS workstations so the Federal Emergency Management Agency could handle the expected surge of calls to its telephone help line.

Within 12 hours after wind and water knocked out communications across the Gulf Coast region, flight commander Capt. Jeffrey Arsenault assembled and deployed a nonstop, 36-hour convoy from Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., to New Orleans, where he established the initial communications support at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.

Bruce Klein, vice president of federal operations at Cisco Systems, made his company’s expertise and equipment available to the Red Cross, the National Guard and other organizations trying to restore communications for first responders in the Gulf Coast region.

Nigel Ballard, manager of Intel’s digital inclusion program, persuaded the Federal Communications Commission to release wireless spectrum reserved for military use so that Intel could rush wireless equipment to the region to replace communications networks that had been wrecked by the storm.

Matthew Foosaner, director of Sprint Nextel’s emergency response team, managed a group of 300 employees and contractors setting up wireless networks and radio equipment at the Louisiana State Fairgrounds in Baton Rouge to support the operations of FEMA and local police and fire departments.

Lt. Joe Morgan, Internet Web services project officer at the Coast Guard’s Martinsburg, W.Va., Operations System Center, augmented an existing Web-based portal called Homeport to help the Coast Guard manage the search-and-rescue calls and missing-person reports.

Deborah Kutzleb, a Coast Guard contractor with Phoenix International, developed and installed a database to track thousands of cases of vessel salvage, wreck removal and marine debris collection. She spent most of September and December on-site in Alexandria, La., and New Orleans.

G. Kelly Croft, assistant deputy commissioner for systems at the Social Security Administration, put together a disaster recovery team to assess the damage inflicted on SSA’s regional offices and restore services by setting up temporary field offices at the Houston Astrodome, the Dallas Convention Center and Kelly Air Force Base.

Martha Dorris, director of the Office of Intergovernmental Solutions at the General Services Administration, was a key player in GSA’s efforts to set up contact centers to help people find government information after the hurricane. The call centers, which built on GSA’s FirstContact program, fielded more than 1 million phone calls, e-mail messages and Internet inquiries.

Michael Gardner, a lead information technology specialist at the IRS’ Atlanta territory office, helped convert its workstations in several call centers to assist FEMA in handling calls related to Katrina. He developed the written procedures, trained desktop PC specialists in the IRS’ Atlanta call center and provided technical support for the IRS and FEMA.

Zoë Baird, president of the Markle Foundation, was one of the principal movers behind an effort to provide ad hoc electronic medical records for Katrina evacuees. KatrinaHealth.org, launched Sept. 22, is an online service for authorized health professionals to gain electronic access to prescription medication information for people who lost their records in the disaster.

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