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Ike recovery keeps VA technology staff busy

Information technology employees at a Houston Veterans Affairs Department hospital still are dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Ike.

Comment on this article in The Forum.Some of the Michael DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center's outlying facilities did not regain power until Sept. 18, and a clinic in Galveston, Texas, was destroyed by the storm, said Kevin Lenamond, the hospital's chief information officer. An IT team will head to the Galveston clinic as soon as possible to locate and remove the 35 computers, Lenamond said. He doubts the computers in the clinic still work, but said he nonetheless asked the Galveston police to restrict access to the facility until the computers are retrieved.

This marks the end of a long two weeks for the hospital's IT workers, who started preparing for Ike on Sept. 8, as it pummeled Cuba. The staff, which supports clinics in Beaumont, Conroe, Lufkin and Texas City in addition to the Galveston facility, made backup copies of patient electronic health database that day and shipped them via a secure courier to a VA facility in Little Rock, Ark., Lenamond said.

As the storm approached, employees transmitted hourly updates of patient records over a VA network to the Little Rock facility, he said. They continued to do so the weekend the storm hit. Seventeen of the hospital's 40 technology employees and 23 family members camped out in the facility's library and server room from Friday, Sept. 12 until the evening of Sunday, Sept. 14, to keep vital computer systems running.

This operation was critical to preserving records of veterans served by the Houston hospital and its clinics, and 11 VA clinics in Louisiana, Lenamond said. The main VA hospital in New Orleans was badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and has not reopened, so the two computer servers that manage records for patients in the Louisiana clinics were installed at the Houston hospital.

Though the Houston facility lost commercial power for several days after Ike hit and did not reopen completely until Sept. 16, backup generators powered the 50-plus servers and 3,800 computers in the hospital during the hurricane and in the days after.

The outlying clinics were closed two days before the storm hit. The last clinic did not reopen until Sept. 18 due to power outages, which also cut off communications to those clinics. Lenamond said he dispatched a small portable aperture terminal satellite system to the Texas City mobile clinic on Sept. 18 to help restore communications, with the system providing a direct connection from that clinic into the Houston hospital network.

The Houston VA bought its VSAT system after Katrina to ensure connectivity in the wake of storms severe enough to knock out standard network connections, he said.

VA medical facilities have 40 VSATs, said Josephine Schuda, a department spokeswoman.

Lenamond said he learned one valuable lesson from riding out the storm at the Houston VA hospital: sleeping on a hard floor is not an experience he wants to repeat. The next time there is a hurricane, he plans to have plenty of air mattresses on hand for his staff and families.

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