After 2004's Storms, 1 Florida CU Has Made Changes

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For most of Labor Day weekend in 2004, the Boca Raton office for IBM Southeast FCU wasn't in operation.

Hurricane Frances was set to come ashore somewhere in the Palm Beach County area with winds blasting from 120 to 145 miles per hour. The slow-moving hurricane could gain even more strength over the Gulf Stream and dump a huge amount of rain, potentially flooding the entire area.

As a result, IBM Southeast recently relocated its entire database and server system to a building signficantly stronger than its headquarters in order to keep operations up and running even while its disaster plan may be in effect.

The 2004 hurricane season was one of the busiest on record with four named storms striking the Sunshine State within weeks, something that hadn't happened in the United States in well over 100 years. IBM Southeast FCU staff activated their disaster plan as the Category 4 hurricane approached the Florida coastline.

"Having those hurricanes bear down on you, it makes you look at your plan," said Wendell Blakeley, IBM Southeast FCU senior vice president of technology.

Unfortunately, IBM Southeast members in Atlanta or retirees who have left South Florida weren't too thrilled with the plan. Secondary ATMs could be used, but members couldn't access online billpay, transfers or the voice servers. For members outside of Florida, their financial situation was normal and they needed to use their accounts. "We heard, loud and clear, from our members that this was unacceptable," he said. Blakeley said.

IBM Southeast staffers not only heard it, they acted on it, he said.

One thing was clear: the Boca Raton headquarters, built before present hurricane building codes were enacted, might not remain standing if a storm with the ferocity of 1992's Hurricane Andrew hit Palm Beach County. IBM Southeast FCU staff decided to relocate the entire system roughly one hour south of Boca Raton "somewhere in southwest Miami," he said not revealing the exact site of the building.

Logistics also played a part in the decision to move the servers and database to Miami. IBM Southeast FCU already had an electrical generator to power the entire headquarters with an 18-hour fuel reserve.

Blakeley said businesses directly across the street from IBM Southeast were out of power and county-wide power outages prevented most gas stations from pumping any gasoline at all. No one knew when power would come on or in which location.

After Frances was gone, Blakeley said the $650-million IBM Southeast staff determined that fuel supply was a problem area in their existing disaster plan. "What good is a generator if you can't get fuel?" he asked.

Ready For A Category Five

Blakeley said the new location is a building engineered to category 5 standards (156 miles per hour or higher) from the ground up and features four days of back-up batteries, a 12-day supply of diesel fuel for generators, two electrical grid feeds to Florida Power & Light, and guaranteed fuel sources equal to what a nearby hospital would use in an emergency.

Now, if another hurricane makes landfall directly at the Boca Raton headquarters, credit union staff will have already been sent to Atlanta and will access the Miami-based servers and databases with remote consoles.

"Nobody is physically at the facility, just the hardware," he said. "It's the live machine. It's the information we need to run the credit union."

With 12 branches from South Florida to Tampa and Atlanta, Blakeley said IBM Southeast can't afford to shut down at all, even during a disaster.

Blakeley said the Miami building is secured by guarded gates and has little or no markings visible to the general public. MCI and America Online do certain operations from the site, he said, but couldn't reveal other companies co-located at the site. "You don't know who owns it, because it doesn't have a name on it," he said.

Blakeley said the database and server relocation "wasn't that expensive, but encourages it" to other credit unions. Blakeley said he would discuss these plans with a third-party communications vendor, such as MCI or AT&T, which could provide constant communications during a disaster or emergency.

While IBM Southeast has a higher comfort level due to the recent move, Blakeley said there's always room for improvement. "Everyone needs to do an assessment and make changes. You have to take it seriously and be willing to make changes," he said.

Blakeley said CU staff spent six months planning the move and two days to move the equipment.

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