Hurricane Isaac, which struck the Gulf Coast late last month, set a familiar series of disaster responses in motion. Complementing the physical recovery efforts were separate plans by officials at the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services to establish intake centers where residents could receive benefits under the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (DSNAP) program, which extends food stamp benefits to eligible residents in disaster areas.
Over the subsequent weekend, officials put out a call to outside agencies for a specific kind of assistance to help Louisianans get back on their feet: tech support.
West Virginia Chief Technology Officer Gale Given explained to Government Technology that she had many IT staff willing to uproot their routines and make a hasty getaway to Louisiana. Of the nearly 60 people who volunteered to help, the state sent 17 to Louisiana for an initial two-week period.
“West Virginians are very helpful people; anytime there's any kind of disaster, folks from this state turn out in great numbers to help,” said Given. “It’s not the kind of opportunity that comes very often to a team like this, so I think they were really proud and pleased to be asked.”
West Virginia brought staff members with expertise in network engineering, servers and storage, the bulk of whom came from the Office of Technology’s field tech support team. Initially they assisted with site assessments in several Louisiana parishes.
Over the course of two weeks, the West Virginia team branched out to 21 different Louisiana cities, setting up and supporting more than 800 laptops. Nine staff people stayed on for an additional week to set up six extra intake centers in Baton Rouge, which only recently received its disaster declaration.
Despite the long hours, with workdays routinely lasting 12 hours or longer, they’ve relished the opportunity to help in the recovery from Isaac. The technical team from West Virginia relayed that local staff and benefit recipients alike provided a warm welcome, and expressed heartfelt appreciation.
Also lending technical expertise was California’s Emergency Management Agency (Cal EMA), which has much experience managing in-state disaster scenarios like wildfires and floods. Along with a technical expert from the state’s General Services department, three technical professionals from Cal EMA were dispatched to Louisiana between Sept. 4 and 16.
Mike Beckstrand, assistant chief of Telecomunications for CalEMA, explained that in most disaster scenarios, calls for help usually ask for administrative staff to relieve overworked emergency managers. Called into service because of his experience with satellite communications, Beckstrand too jumped at the chance to make a contribution to hurricane Isaac recovery efforts.
"It was very surprising to me when this request came through for IT,” he said. “What a great opportunity to participate in this."
Starting work helping at the Lakefront Arena Assistance Center in New Orleans, the California team was then divided and dispatched to set up two additional intake sites in Bogalusa and Franklinton.
The group provided valuable troubleshooting support to local intake workers that helped ensure smooth operations of the Web-based benefits administration system. The team also helped navigate server challenges resulting from the influx of new entries coming into the system from all the intake centers, at the rate of several thousand a day.
Cal EMA Associate Information Systems Analyst Chris Raynes described the experience as exhausting, but very rewarding. When IT systems were running smoothly, the out of state teams jumped in to help in other ways as well — answering questions and assisting applicants inside and outside the intake centers.
“It was a whole different job duty than what we normally do, but it felt good,” he said. “I really feel like we had a positive influence on them through what we did to help out.”
Given added that her staff is returning to West Virginia with some valuable disaster response lessons that can be applied should the state suffer an upcoming disaster of its own. “We've learned a great deal,” Given said. “I think we'll be able to better equip our state in the event that something like this does happen.”
Raynes echoed this sentiment, explaining that staff dispatched to Louisiana stayed in communication with their home offices by passing on insights gleaned via an internal CalEMA blog. "We'd like to use this as a model in the case that something in California were to happen," he said.
The state of Louisiana is covering the costs for the out-of-state technical experts deployed to assist in its recovery. Along with the contingents from West Virginia and California, additional technical help came from Kentucky and the District of Columbia.