Hurricanes Katrina and Rita displaced more than a million people along the Gulf Coast in August and September. Steve Cooper, CIO of the American Red Cross and former CIO of the Department of Homeland Security, spoke recently with CIO Insight about how technology aided Red Cross efforts to help those in need.
CIO INSIGHT: What were your first steps after Hurricane Katrina hit?
COOPER: We began operations within 24 hours, as soon as it was declared safe to move into the area. Our first priority was to shelter people, and then to provide some financial assistance. We had about 500 shelters at the height of the disaster. The challenge was that the communications infrastructure varied widely depending on the shelter. We might be using a warehouse in one location, a church in another. So connecting the shelters to the Internet and to national headquarters was the first thing we needed to do. We also saw that people would not be returning home anytime soon, and there would be a big demand for residents to reach loved ones and communicate with employers.
Many technology and telecommunications organizations generously offered support and donated equipment, and we evaluated these opportunities to see what would be most productive. At the Astrodome in Houston, for example, we used wireless laptops and WiFi to gather case information on families so that we could provide financial assistance and other services. In one week, we processed about 20,000 people sheltered thereeveryone who applied for aid.
How long would it have taken without WiFi?
It would have been just like the way we used to do iton paper. You came in, filled out a form and then we issued you a paper check. We replaced that with a digital system that produces a debit card instead, so families could get relief faster. It also helped us ensure we didn't give aid twice to the same person. We could have done it without the mobility, but we would never have been able to do it in a reasonably rapid time frame.
How will this experience affect your technology strategy going forward?
I think what Katrina has pointed out is that the Red Cross needs to be able to provide mobile capability so we can go wherever the need arises. Technology will be a key part of that. Our response technology team and our traditional IT team will work together to ensure we do everything we can, based on lessons learned. By doing some thoughtful preplanning, I think we will be better prepared if and when something catastrophic should occur.
But isn't being prepared for catastrophes what the Red Cross does?
It depends on how you define catastrophe. We typically address 70,000 disasters a year, the majority of those being single-family fires. Those aren't catastrophes. I don't know the formal definition, but I think when normal resources are overwhelmed, you have a catastrophe. People don't understand the immensity of this. Last year in Florida, we processed 73,000 cases for all four major hurricanes. But the total number of cases related to Katrina and Rita has exceeded 1.2 million so far. That strains everyone's resources, no matter how big you are. That's really what I am talking about.