Ten years ago, just days after hurricane Katrina battered the southern states of the US, I received and urgent call from work late at night.
“…make your way to Austin TX. We are setting up a logistics center for tech deployment into affected areas in conjunction with the American Red Cross. Be there tomorrow by 10am.”
It was a call from fellow IT employee, temporarily working in a hastily organized crisis center. I sent a quick email to my boss and team, stating where I was going. The response was simply, we have your back. Do what is needed. Six hours later while most of the world was captivated at images of the destruction on television, I was on a plane heading to help and not knowing what to expect.
Intel Corporation has a long history of providing aid and assistance for people after global catastrophes. The employees donate their time and money. The company matches employee contributions, donates equipment, and sends relief through response organizations. In some cases, for the most severe circumstances, Intel also sends its most valuable resource into the field, our experts.
After landing in Austin, I joined a small advanced team at the American Red Cross (ARC) IT logistic center. Corporate volunteers from Intel, Dell, and Cisco were there to help develop systems, networks, and telecommunications solutions to allow ARC field personnel to register victims, issue relief funds, and help people find missing family members. More highly skilled volunteers came flooding in to join the team. We were asked to build PC kits which included networking and telecommunications which could be deployed. Except, there were no components to use and the platform, consisting of hardware, operating systems, and applications, was not architected. Companies quickly began leveraging industry relationships to acquire the necessary devices and software. Intel rerouted and donated a large shipment of PCs which our IT department purchased for employees. Dell and Cisco did the same for products earmarked for other customers. We jumped in our cars and raided every electronics store in the city to fill in all the other necessities, such as keyboards, mice, network cards, power strips, etc. In short order, the loading dock was filled with gear.
The teams began working on software modifications, network configurations, a base image, and then building the kits in an ad hoc assembly line. Each one was assembled, tested, and then broken down to fit in travel containers we modified by hand. After a long day, we had a solution architected, kits built, and filled in a semi-trailer ready to go into the field. Transport was being handled by a major trucking company. Hours after the truck pulled away, we began receiving calls from the field asking where the equipment was. They were in dire need and first sites had not received their scheduled delivery. A quick call to the transport company revealed they put the shipment on hold. The roads were not safe, electricity was still out of large swaths of the south, and fuel availability was unreliable in the affected areas. This led law enforcement to setup roadblocks and hold back most traffic.
We knew, as part of the relief effort we could get through the checkpoints. So we asked for the trailer back, but the trucking company refused. We would not get it back for another day or more. Hearing what was going on in the field, that was just unacceptable. Our choice was clear.
The bulk of the team was in the break room joyfully relaxing and feasting on pizza after a long day of work in a hot warehouse, when we informed them of the situation. All became quiet.
“What do we do?”
Not knowing if the volunteers would agree after such a grueling day, we proposed doing it all over again. Build the kits and find a more reliable way of transporting them that night. Without a single complaint, every last person stood up with gritty determination and filed back into the warehouse. Then the real challenges began. We didn’t have enough components left or cases which would fit everything.
Dig deep. It is times like these when I fully appreciate working with creative, motivated, and relentless problem solvers. I assembled a team to solve the case problem and figure out how to get the components into a box half the size. Admins were assigned to procure the necessary components from local stores. The technologists were challenged with making the software builds install faster and with a greater success rate. I pulled the line managers and asked them to find a way to assemble the kits faster and designated a safety officer to oversee the health of the volunteers and insure tired people were not being run over by forklifts or crushed by falling cases. After another long shift, the new kits were built. It was close to midnight and many had been working nonstop since 6am.
But there was another problem. None of the transportation companies could make the deliveries. The kits needed to be dropped off in several locations across 4 states. We tried every avenue, but nobody could get these cases where they needed be.
Dig deeper. It was time to take matters into our own hands. I asked for volunteers to drive that night from Austin, eastbound into Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi. I told them I would lead a caravan to crisscross the states and drop kits and support personnel to affected areas. We advised them of the dangers and warnings the federal emergency team provided to us.
I was shocked. Exhausted people, covered in sweat and dirt, raised their hands to volunteer. In a moment I will never forget, these people who were most comfortable in cubicles and labs were willing to go into the night, in areas deemed as unsafe, to answer the call of helping others. We could not guarantee a ride home, but committed we would track them and get them back as soon as we could, after the kits were setup. That did not discourage anyone. Helping others was their mission. We grabbed sleeping bags, bottles of water, and bug spray, then headed into the night.
Over the next 23 hours we drove across the area affected by Katrina, which killed over 1200 people and resulted in $108 billion in property damage. The storm displaced millions of people and disrupted communities across the south who struggled to deal with the waves of Americans trying to find normalcy. We passed emergency vehicles from dozens of neighboring states who came down to help. Along the way we dropped off kits and volunteers to aid stations, community centers, and schools converted into shelters. My team ended up at the southernmost tip of Louisiana, setting up a satellite uplink for a remote aid station while power companies were furiously working to restore power. There was a moment when I stood on the coastal road at the waters edge and looked into the gulf. Helping those in need brought me to that place. It was both beautiful and peaceful.
During my time we saw devastation, riots, hysteria, and an unbelievable number of displaced citizens. We also saw hope, faith, fierce independence, sacrifice, and indomitable resiliency. I spent two weeks in the field and came back with a lifetime of memories. The volunteers I had the pleasure to serve with were intelligent, passionate, focused, and committed. I saw companies rise beyond the desires for profit and truly give their very best in a time of need. Walmart gave away water and critical supplies while maintaining the most amazing supply chain, even to remote areas. Budget rentals supplied hundreds of trucks which were used to deliver equipment, water, and other supplies. Tech partners Dell and Cisco sent their brightest to solve problems and empower technology to help ARC in their mission. Intel, for its part, contributed on a number of fronts, including supporting a telethon to raise money, donating millions of dollars and equipment, and sent a few crazy people like me into the mix. Although we were volunteers, Intel management paid us and allowed the use of corporate funds to purchase equipment and supplies needed in the field. Every Intel employee who volunteered came back to their job, without any negative impacts to role or position.
Where there are natural disasters and catastrophes, you will find Intel volunteers taking up the cause for recovery. Over the past decade Intel has responded to calls for assistance in the aftermath of tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, and typhoons. Some donate money and relief items, others commit their time, and a few even put their boots on the ground. Volunteers all contribute in their own valuable way and the corporation and management go to incredible lengths to support these efforts. For a company perceived as full of computer nerds, geeks, and engineers who hide in cubicles and only think tech, I challenge that notion. Intel employees have a strong sense of community and responsibility, and even ten years after being part of Intel’s hurricane Katrina team, I am proud to stand and work among them.