In New York City, as of last weekend, some 40,000 people were facing homelessness from Superstorm Sandy just as colder weather was starting to move in. The inevitable comparisons were made between the federal response to the latest weather catastrophe and its response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. When you filter out all of the politics and the theatrical approach to show the response to Sandy, it becomes clear that the biggest difference between the two storms may not really be the federal government then and how, but rather where the two massive storms struck land.
New Orleans, like Galveston, Texas a century earlier, was, sadly, destined for destruction. It sat (and still sits) below sea level, protected by incompetent levees inexpertly maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers. Moreover, the competence of and resources available to New Orleans and Louisiana were no match for what New York City and New Jersey could muster.
Still, the East Coast event required federal response. We’ll have to wait longer to see how effective it was in reality, although many political commentators thought it actually helped in President Obama’s reelection. It’s possible to overload the response. Witness the FEMA delivery of a large numbers of generators. The Wall Street Journal reported that, for a variety of reasons, were mostly unused as of the weekend after the disaster.
FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate did appear to be more on top of the situation than his Bush-era predecessor, Michael Brown.
For the government itself, the storm showed that years of pushing telework, mobility and distributed computing through cloud adoption is lessening the dependence on physical locations of work, namely federal buildings. Note how the Office of Management and Budget on Monday and Tuesday declared federal buildings “closed to the public” instead of saying the federal government is closed. This is partly posturing when the public is crabby about “bureaucrats” and whether they work enough and are paid too much. But it’s also a nod to the reality that out-of-office computing has become useful and reliable for a critical mass of people.
Just this past weekend I ran into a friend who is a public affairs chief for a departmental IG. He commented that last week proved to him he can do his entire job from his home office. The poster child for telework, the Patent and Trademark Office, reported high productivity during Sandy closures.
The storm provided a reminder that data center consolidation should go hand in hand with cloud adoption. That’s because consolidation produces a greater tendency toward single points of failure, while cloud computing tends toward resiliency. That is, if the cloud contract is properly set up. Just as government agencies require cloud data centers located in the U.S., they should also make sure the provider includes at least one geographically separate backup facility. This is fairly standard, but a real disaster shows the potential of single-basket clouds.
The Sandy aftermath also showed interagency cooperation on the mobile front. As NextGov reported, military satellite images of the storm damage were made available via secure channels to mobile devices held by FEMA, and state and local first responders.
NOAA also made the full impact visually available online at a special web site. Although hard to navigate, the site in some ways gives a more coherent picture of the devastation than most of the newspaper photography, which tended to show human interest closeups but no sense of scope. The scope is huge.