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NY’s Response to Sandy Hindered by Computer Network Overload

The details of the network difficulties are among revelations in a report done for the state assessing its handling of Sandy.

New York City after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
New York City after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Photo courtesy of Geoff Stearns/Flickr
New York's emergency response to Superstorm Sandy was hindered because the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Service's computer network could not handle all the applications running, according to a new report from a western New York company that works for the agency.

The report reveals the division's ability to access computer data was stalled for a few days in the fall of 2012 because its system was saturated with data requests, requiring IT professionals to disconnect a Google Maps program that was causing the logjam and make other adjustments.

The details of the network difficulties are among revelations in a document ripping reports done for the state assessing its handling of Sandy. The "after-action" reports, which the state has refused to release, were obtained by the Times Union and published last month. The reports were supposed to help the state learn what worked and what didn't during its emergency response effort.

Buffalo Computer Graphics said in its new document that the harsh criticisms of its incident management/procurement tracking system, called DisasterLAN, in the after action reports were inaccurate, although many of the other criticisms of the state's response were on target.

The after-action reports were done by Rick Mathews and his National Center for Security & Preparedness, a unit within the state University at Albany that contracts with the Division of Homeland Security. The agency has spent $70,000 to $100,000 on the after-action reports, Mathews has said.

To create the reports, Mathews assigned several interviewers to collect anonymous statements from people who worked on the state's Sandy response team.

"We were never interviewed ourselves," said Buffalo Computer Graphics Vice President Gary Masterson. He said in the weeks during and after the October 2012 storm, BCG personnel staffed the state's Emergency Operations Center at the bunker below the State Police headquarters in Albany and at the Regional Operations Center set up in Manhattan at Gov. Andrew Cuomo's direction. About 20 BCG employees were embedded for many days during the emergency activation, and the company's staff were on site around the clock.

Mathews reported that the DLAN system crashed. "That is 100 percent false," said BCG Emergency Services Program Manager Chris Zak, who was deployed to the Manhattan outpost.

He and Masterson, who was at the Albany bunker during the response, said the company's system did not fail; instead, the emergency center's computer network that couldn't handle all the action.

"If the Internet to your home goes out and you cannot reach, you should not assume that CNN is broken and blame CNN," BCG says in a lengthy document it put together for business partners and associates concerned about the criticisms in the after-action reports.

The response, provided to the Times Union, was also sent to a Homeland Security official by the company.

The Buffalo firm says the state had a few computer system hiccups during Sandy and wireless connectivity was lost, meaning the DLAN System couldn't run.

"Apparently, upon executive orders, a KML data feed tied to other DHSES systems unrelated to DLAN was provided to Google so that they could provide mapping data to their Google Maps product," the company stated. "Unfortunately, this had the untoward effect of saturating the (state Office of Emergency Management) network with data requests thereby blocking or preventing other traffic from passing." (KML or Keyhole Markup Language is a file format used to display geographic data in Google Maps.)

He did point out that the state has taken up a recommendation that the Buffalo company said it has been advising for some time: Homeland Security has begun attaching GPS devices to products that may be sent out during a storm response. But it is not using its DLAN system to coordinate the asset tracking with the procurement tracking, as the Buffalo company had recommended before and during the Sandy response.

"Unfortunately," the company said in its document, its advice did not win the day during the Sandy effort and the state failed to adequately track many large and small assets, such as light towers or generators.

Masterson and Zak pointed out many problems with the after-action reports' portrayal of DLAN. But they agreed in findings that the state's emergency response entities are very understaffed, and that the governor's decision to set up a regional operations center did not help the staff perform duties normally carried out in the Albany center.

Mathews declined to take questions on the report.

The company noted that other states, provinces and counties use DLAN. It is known to be disliked by state Homeland Security Commissioner Jerome Hauer, who was interviewed for the after-action reports and who has a cozy relationship with Mathews, according to interviews with state officials.

"Unfortunately, it appears as if the authors of this report either ignored DLAN supporters or specifically sought out DLAN detractors. One can only question the author's motivations," BCG wrote.

The company has a $6.8 million contract with Homeland Security that began in 2012 and extends through the end of 2017 for its proprietary software and maintenance. The company, in business since 1982, employs about 40 people in Erie County.

©2014 the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.)