Before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, city CTO Greg Meffert thought that he'd be known for a host of good outcomes as delivered by a new muni wireless system. Neither lowered crime nor reductions in the digital divide, however, were as astonishing as what this system delivered (and still delivers) in Katrina's aftermath:
Post-Katrina, the city's MIS team became the central logistics team for regional recovery. They had to support critical systems city-wide; as Meffert said, it felt like building SimCity. The team had to start from scratch to build city support. They created new emergency operation centers, 311, and 911 centers. Their operation grew from 10 computers to hundreds as their operation had to support the three EOCs that provided centralized communications for all emergency relief efforts. Rapid scaling that most venture-backed startups could never imagine.
Surprisingly, the one thing that survived the storm were the Tropos units and cameras. And the installation was no longer just a camera network or a public safety network -- it was the only communications network in town. Meffert's little muni wifi team became the city's telecommunications service provider. Today, that network is still being used for everything.
NOLA became a test lab for every new, crazy idea in communications. Meffert didn't expect his team to become a center of technology and innovation, but so they did. The mesh network allowed the city to conduct 110,000 home inspections in just 6 weeks, and to issue 500 building permits per day (a 500% increase). It also enabled free public Internet access that supported the businesses and employees returning to their homes and office. And of course, the system continued to serve its original purpose as a NOPD network and "security canopy."
Meffert shared his biggest lesson with the Spring 2006 VON audience: It's communications, not applications, that matter most. Who cares if you can run payroll, if you don't have communications? Communications aren't just a line in and out any more; they're a cloud, with as many points as there are individuals within the environs.
There were also some hard, practical lessons learned by Meffert and team:
- Things that work well in a small crisis won't work well in a major crisis.
- Don't assume that you'll have power restored in a timely fashion. You can have the fanciest system in the world, but it means nothing without power.
- Don't assume that you'll have a habitable building to work from.
- True interoperability probably isn't there.
- The roads won't be there.
- You won't have enough staff to go 24/7.
- You won't have basic safety and law enforcement maintained.
- Health and 911 systems won't be fully operational.
Meffert stressed that redundant wireless mesh and point-to-point communications should be readily available, deployed, and tested prior to disasters. Looking back at his astonishing story, one not only sees a few of the city's finest stepping up when they were needed, but also some of the only real evidence being provided for muni wireless debates.