Accela Takes On Vital Role in New Orleans Recovery

Safety continues to be an overriding concern in New Orleans recovery efforts. Now, apart from all the obvious flood and wind damage from Hurricane Katrina, some residents are returning to find a red tag on their homes.

by / October 7, 2005
Richard Morrey, Accela's chief technical officer on the ground with New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin

This red tag indicates that a visual inspection of their home has found enough structural damage to make occupancy dangerous. It is not tantamount to condemning the property, but merely serves as a means of helping residents make an informed decision about entering the property. Nevertheless, the city strongly recommends that anyone with a red tag on a property not enter it until a complete structural assessment is made.

It is a sensible precaution designed to ensure the safety of residents, one that has been a priority for city officials determined to minimize any further injury or loss of life. Yet the rapid implementation of this simple precaution has taken a tremendous amount of behind-the-scenes work, not the least of which involved the rapid deployment of technology to support the city officials doing the inspections.

This is a story that begins quite literally the day that Katrina hit. Shortly after Accela reached out to the City with an offer of assistance to start work on a recovery plan with them.

The New Orleans Department of Safety and Permits had been an Accela customer for 2 years prior to Katrina, using Accela Automation, a Web-based application to automate permitting, inspections, planning and code enforcement, and other critical inspection functions. Additionally, the department had the application hosted off-site by Accela at a tier one data center.

Originally, New Orleans had planned to eventually change over to being self-hosted, something that was obviously put on hold. But as a result of that timing, all of the critical building, permit and land information data for the city remained intact.

Accela on the Ground
Accela responded immediately and provided a team to prepare for the daunting task that lay ahead -- inspecting the 170,000 structures in New Orleans.

Starting the day the hurricane hit, Accela donated the manpower for 2 weeks to work collaboratively with city officials to enhance the existing application to meet the city's new damage assessment needs. This included work with FEMA to put together a FEMA-approved guide sheet for flood damage assessment, adapting a previous guide sheet FEMA had prepared for earthquake damage assessment.

And then, working in close partnership with their technology partners, Achievo, Tele Atlas, Panasonic and ESRI, the Accela team configured and pre-loaded Toughbooks, donated by Panasonic, with all of the GIS addresses in New Orleans, as well as the new guide sheets. Additionally, the Toughbooks were outfitted with GPS receivers and wireless cards so that city inspectors could record inspection locations not in the City's GIS database and go to a City Hall hotspot to wirelessly upload the inspection data to Accela's database in San Jose.

When it was safe to enter the city, Accela took the pre-configured laptops and then donated a further two weeks of staff time on the ground to get the damage assessment technology up and running and the inspectors trained in using it.

Accela is a relatively small company with about 150 employees. Yet for one week, seven of those employees were on the ground in New Orleans, followed by a second week with five in the city. In addition, there was a large number of the Accela and Achievo staff back at the home offices involved in technical and logistical support.

"Our company employees have developed strong relationships with New Orleans staff over the last few years and we are committed to helping them," said Robert. P. Lee, Accela's president and CEO.

Mike Centineo, the Chief Building Official, armed with Wi-Fi enabled tablet PC donated by Panasonic, uses Accela's solution to record building inspection data.

Recovery Management
As part of the solution to meet the city's recovery needs, Accela configured Web-based access to the data so that as soon as inspections are uploaded, results are viewable on the GIS Maps and also Web-based 'executive consoles' -- a configurable portal architecture that allows for customized views of the Accela Automation data.

The result is that the data is presented in the Mayor's daily briefings and city officials can see at a glance the number of inspections per day, by tag color and by date, as well as view the GIS maps with exact locations of where people have been working.

The ease with which the information is relayed, accessed and displayed has allowed inspectors to spend as much time as possible in the field actually doing inspections.

Richard Morrey, Accela's chief technical officer who lead their Katrina response team, explained that one challenge is that there are only a handful of inspectors. And they are working very hard. "They don't have time to sit down and debrief each other about which areas have been done when their shifts are changing," he said. "But because the results of inspections are viewable on the GIS maps and the executive consoles, as new inspectors come on line, they can immediately get to work. In this case, a picture is worth a thousand words."

The task of inspecting all the structures in the city is a significant one, but city officals say it would have been a far greater challenge if the process was not fully automated with an integrated solution. "We are very grateful that Accela responded so quickly to our request for on-site assistance and product training for our city inspectors, FEMA representatives, and other emergency response officials," said Mike Centineo, the Chief Building Official at New Orleans. "The Accela solution will dramatically speed up the damage assessment and recovery process and help our citizens get back on their feet more quickly."

On a map of New Orleans created using Accela's software, homes that have been inspected are color coded red, yellow and green. Green dots denote a home with minimal structural damage that has been cleared for re-entry. Yellow denotes limited re-entry access. Red indicates that the structure is unsafe.

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