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[ISN] Guam typhoon tests IT readiness, disaster recovery
By PATRICK THIBODEAU
DECEMBER 10, 2002
A devastating and powerful supertyphoon struck Guam on Sunday,
severely testing IT contingency plans for managers who have made
survival on the remote island an art.
Typhoon Pongsona, which reportedly had winds gusting to 180 miles per
hour, left the island without power and water and with limited
telephone and Internet services.
"It's the worst [typhoon] we have ever had -- the damage here is
incredible," said Wolf Hofer, the IT manager at Deloitte & Touche
LLP's Guam office.
Tourist buses, huge shipping containers and cars were flipped over and
scattered on roadways. Windows of expensive hotels were blown out.
Large antennas were snapped in half. The high winds also toppled many
of the island's massive, steel-reinforced concrete utility poles that
were supposedly typhoon-proof.
"There is power only where there are generators," said Rudy
Villaverde, systems manager at the University of Guam's computer
center. He said his computers are up and running, but he can't supply
information. "Communications are almost dead," he said.
President Bush yesterday declared the island a disaster area, making
it eligible for federal assistance. One death has been attributed to
Guam may be one of the toughest places in the world to operate a
computer network. Despite its year-round sun, lush tropical landscape,
soaring mountains and beautiful beaches, it's in the direct path of
some of world's most fearsome storms. It also experiences earthquakes
on a regular basis, including a quake measuring 8.1 on the Richter
scale in 1993.
Computer systems are typically housed in protected areas, shielded
from the elements. These systems are designed to withstand the
island's natural rigors, and good backup and contingency planning is a
fact of life for IT managers there.
Indeed, when Hofer returned to his office yesterday morning after the
storm, his system was up, running on generator power. WorldCom Inc.,
which provides some of the cable connections that link Guam to the
outside world, was ready to go as soon as the local telephone provider
re-energized its lines, said Hofer.
But the typhoon has crippled services over which IT managers have
little control. Electrical service could be out for some time. A
smaller typhoon, Chataan, which struck July 5-6, left some areas of
the island without power for a month. Compounding the local
difficulties is a massive fire at the fuel supply depot at Apra
Power is "going to be the big problem," said Hofer. Until electricity
is restored, his company's power supply will depend on someone hauling
over 45-gallon drums of diesel fuel.
Tony Das, managing director of Startec+PCI, a cellular and Internet
service provider, said it may be weeks before power is restored. "I
told my chief engineer here to make sure the generator is in good
enough condition to last at least two months if necessary," he said.
Startec maintained its connectivity with the island's two main cable
stations and is supplying Internet services to its customers who still
have working lines. For those who can't connect from their homes or
offices, Das said he plans to set up computers and telephones at his
offices and invite customers to use them.
The forecast failed to give much warning on Pongsona, and residents
originally believed it would miss the island. Instead, the storm's
eyewall ran up the island's east side, passing over the northern part
of Guam. The island is a seven-hour flight from Hawaii and is located
in a time zone with a 14-hour time difference from the East Coast.
The devastation from this storm is being compared to Pamela in 1976
and Karen in 1962 -- two supertyphoons that that hit with sustained
winds of more than 150 miles per hour. A 1997 typhoon, Paka, also
caused considerable damage.
The government has not yet completed an assessment of the storm's
damage and cost, but it will be expensive. "This is viewed as probably
one of the worst storms [to hit the island] in the last 25 years,"
said Leland Bettis, a Guam official based in Washington.
"The people can take a lot, the island can take a lot," said Ester
Kiaaina, chief of staff of Guam's U.S. delegate, Robert Underwood. But
"I think the people are just heartbroken," he added.
The American Red Cross is accepting donations to help with the
recovery through its disaster relief fund.
Editor's note: While in the Navy in the mid-1970s, Thibodeau worked at
the U.S. Fleet Weather Central, Guam.
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