Soon after the waters of Lake Pontchartrain flooded portions of New Orleans, CTO Greg Meffert handed Mayor Ray Nagin a voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) phone he "commandeered" from a looted Office Depot.

This was the only option left for conducting a call between the mayor and President Bush on Air Force One. Phone service was down throughout the city, and radio towers had toppled to the ground. The phone was plugged into City Hall's only functioning Internet connection, which stood just a few inches above water.

Ten weeks later, Meffert still faced "a huge rebuilding effort" on the city's IT infrastructure. Although anything plugged in was washed away in the flood, Meffert said, the city's Web applications and services were running safely on servers in Dallas, and its mainframe applications were high and dry in Orange County, Calif.

"That's why I'm still in business," said Meffert in mid-November 2005. "All those basic systems are back online. But I've had to, over the past two months, completely build a whole operations center to run everything."

Impossible Endeavor

Like so many others who responded to hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, IT officials at every level of government from Florida to Texas dedicated long hours of hard work and exercised tremendous creativity. Whether they were fishing ruined equipment out of the floodwaters, helping house and comfort evacuees, or managing the offers of aid that poured into their region, CIOs and their departments played a key role in the recovery.

They often pulled off the seemingly impossible in record time.

The immensity of what happened that week in September continues to emerge. By mid-December 2005, the U.S. government had spent more than $20 billion in hurricane relief, with estimates that the final price tag would "pale in comparison," according to an article in the Washington Post.

The storm and the ensuing floods along the Gulf Coast highlighted how vulnerable the physical infrastructure for telecommunications networks is to natural disaster, according to testimony in October 2005 during a congressional hearing on homeland security on government operability during catastrophic events.

CIOs in both the public and private sectors are ill prepared for such a catastrophic event. A poll of CIOs in November 2004 found that one in five did not have a formal disaster recovery plan in place, and one in 10 said their organization would last less than two weeks if local or regional technical infrastructure failed to recover quickly, according to the CIO Executive Council, which conducted the survey. Only 31 percent of CIOs rated their disaster recovery and business continuity plans as "extremely or very effective."

But as federal, state and local government CIOs know, citizens expect government to be available -- at all hours -- to help during such disasters. That means being electronically and physically accessible for those in need. In New Orleans, Meffert turned to business partners and new technology to keep a semblance of government operations above water.

For example, when the city had only six weeks to determine whether it was safe for residents to return to 110,000 homes, software developer Accela offered technology to automate permitting and inspections. Intel and Tropos Networks built a Wi-Fi network based on mesh technology. "Panasonic stepped up and gave us a bunch of Toughbooks with GPS," Meffert said. "My internal team wrote some code to automate the GPS linkup with the GIS database to map everything, and voil

Merrill Douglas  |  Contributing Writer