Hurricane Katrina disaster recovery lessons still popping up

Tiering applications, paying attention to people issues are key

A few specific technologies were also crucial to the Lagasse recovery effort: VoIP, VPNs and thin clients. VoIP enabled Lagasse to create call centers virtually anywhere, including in its shipping facilities and warehouses, by simply dropping phones in. Call agents could go to these facilities and appear to be in the same call queue as teams in the company's traditional call centers, he said.

Likewise, with VPNs and a Citrix-based thin client capability, displaced staffers who had access to an Internet connection could become productive again. "Every user who had a laptop became a productivity worker the instant they could find a wire," Lancaster said.

The people part

One of the more difficult aspects of coming up with a disaster recovery plan is accounting for individual employees after disaster strikes. "The people element is largely missing in every conversation I've ever had about this subject," Lancaster said.

When companies perform disaster recovery tests, it normally involves booking flight reservations and hotel rooms months in advance. As the event draws closer, staffers argue about where to get drinks the night following the event. At the event itself, everyone gathers around a big table and lets each other know when their bit is complete, so the next step can begin.

"That's not how it really happens," Lancaster said, noting he learned from the experience of those earlier hurricanes. "In 2002, when we asked associates to take part in disaster recovery, they said the first thing that they should say: 'I've got a husband and two kids or a wife and a kid and two dogs and I've got to do things, I've got to take care of things.' The company just fell off the priority list."

By 2004, Lagasse had strategies in place to ensure that it wouldn't ask employees to go anywhere until their families were taken care of, either by moving them to a safe location or letting them accompany employees. This was a powerful step that eliminates a lot of scrambling when a disaster occurs, enabling faster decision-making, he said. After Katrina, Lagasse employees scattered from New Orleans to areas where Lagasse had a presence -- including Chicago, Atlanta and Philadelphia -- and to areas it didn't, such as Tennessee, Texas and other parts of Louisiana and Florida. In some of those areas, Lagasse had sites where employees could gather while in others they worked out of homes, hotel rooms or Internet cafes.

In the end, it was those employees who made the disaster plan work. "All plans fail in the face of the enemy. We ended up with associates having to make decisions on the fly, and having to make risky, very difficult decisions on the fly," Lancaster said. "And the caliber of those people greatly determined how effective those decisions were. So hiring and development is very important."

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