Resurrecting the Court

After massive flooding, Hyde County turned to satellite links and wireless networks to get its courthouse back in session.

by / March 2, 2004
In September 2003, Hurricane Isabel plowed into North Carolina's Outer Banks with 100 mph winds, pushed its way up the Eastern Seaboard, and left in its wake downed trees, smashed homes, millions of people without electricity and damages estimated in the billions.

One of the hardest hit areas was Hyde County, N.C., which alone sustained damages of more than $13 million. The county was among those President Bush declared a major disaster area, making it eligible for federal aid.

Included in the many homes, businesses and government offices damaged by the hurricane was the Hyde County Courthouse in Swan Quarter. Flooding in the building reached 34 inches and destroyed much of the court's technological infrastructure.

"I would say a majority of all the equipment that wasn't at least above a desk was under water," said James Golden, LAN architecture manager with the Technology Services Division of North Carolina's Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC). "There was some equipment on the second floor -- the actual courtroom -- that was untouched. But most of the equipment on the first floor, including the main infrastructure switches, was pretty much wasted."

Swan Quarter is fairly isolated, Golden said. The next adjacent courthouse is between 30 and 50 miles away.

"People would have needed to travel quite a distance to hold court, so it just didn't make sense to move all the functions to another county," he said.

Hiring contractors to come in and re-establish the old courthouse would have taken weeks or more, and the court was already backlogged. Also, the county was not sure it wanted to re-establish the court in the old historic building. There was talk about re-establishing it elsewhere -- perhaps even building a new more modern courthouse.

The obvious solution -- one the county began considering after the most urgent clean up was well in hand -- was to set up temporary court facilities somewhere nearby, which needed to include the Office of the Clerk of Superior Court for Hyde County and the mainland Magistrate's Office.

All the houses and businesses in Swan Quarter's downtown area were pretty much in the same condition as the courthouse. County officials found a suitable location about 10 miles east of Swan Quarter at the former Topping's Lakeside Restaurant. The building and motel behind it are located on some of the highest ground in the county, so both escaped flood damage and were vacant, Golden said, adding that it was the best available facility in the area for the county to utilize.

Turning to Wireless
The location's remoteness, however, offered a minor technological challenge. The court needed to connect to the AOC in Raleigh.

"T1 wasn't an option," explained Golden. "None of the companies were offering that. Of course, there was no cable TV in the area, so that wasn't an option. There definitely was no DSL. So other than using dial-up, the only possibility was to use a satellite dish."

DIRECTV was chosen to establish a satellite link with the county's mainframe system. Golden was charged with deploying the wireless solution inside the restaurant.

DIRECTV placed a 2.5-foot dish on a pole just outside the restaurant, approximately 9 feet off the ground. The company ran a cable through the roof to the modem and router. Installation was quick, and the only thing everyone had to wait for was the concrete to dry, said Golden.

One advantage to using satellite, Golden added, is users can select their desired bandwidth. The county's courthouse is small, with only eight or nine peak users, so the court didn't need big pipes like a larger courthouse of perhaps 20 or 25 users would.

"At the top end, you can select almost a meg on your download and something like 768 Kb on the uplink," said Golden. "This gives you some flexibility. Of course, it isn't the best of all worlds, but it is sufficient. In a disaster, it is certainly usable."

Golden offered two reasons they implemented wireless internally. First, since the premises were being rented only for a short time, the owner still wanted to use it as a restaurant once the court moved out. That meant not running a lot of cable. Second, the county wanted to get the court operational as quickly as possible.

"We had the wireless network up and running in less than an hour," he said. "In fact, we had the network up before they had all the furniture in place."

The setup had virtually all the functionality of the old courthouse, including clerk and magistrate stations complete with computers and printers, as well as a cash register.

For both security and connectivity, Golden used the Cisco Aironet 802.11b wireless LAN, which allows easy creation of freestanding all-wireless networks.

Rapid Response
Configuring the wireless network was familiar territory, Golden said, because five courthouses in the state have run wireless systems for nearly a year and a half, and another four or five courthouses are doing building-to-building wireless.

Although cost was not the biggest factor, going wireless saved the county money as well.

"The laptops cost a little bit more," said Golden. "We don't normally use laptops for clerk functions. However, it definitely cost a lot less than it would to hire contractors to come in and run cable through the restaurant."

Golden couldn't give an exact figure on what the county saved, but said the savings were substantial. As well, hardwiring the temporary courthouse would have delayed the setup considerably.

Golden also said the county has been looking at wireless installations for a while, but responding to Hurricane Isabel this way laid some groundwork for future recovery efforts.

"Looking back at it, we got thrown into the fire a little bit on this one," he said. "Now, if another courthouse was to fall into a similar situation, we feel we could respond quicker. It took us about a week or so to really decide what to do. The county spent most of that time trying to find a location.

"Once they established a location and let us know, we probably still could have responded even quicker," he said. "Now we've got a pretty good disaster recovery plan that would be sufficient for the relocation of any courthouse after a disaster situation."
Blake Harris Contributing Editor