US ATTACK: IT community steps up to volunteer

First there was shock. Then panic. Then grief. Then action.

As relief workers looked for survivors amid the rubble from Tuesday's terrorist attacks, the IT community came together by the thousands to help rebuild the New York businesses that literally crumbled to the ground.

Many in the IT community wanted to help by offering hardware, software, fully equipped office space, volunteers, consultants - but they didn't know how.

"We're just sitting here on the sidelines. We're giving blood, but what else can we do?" said Thomas M. Henricks, data processing manager at Mars National Bank in Mars, Pa. Even though his company is a small community bank with US$230 million in assets, Henricks knew there was, at the very least, technical expertise that workers could offer the victims.

"I'm sure that these people had disaster plans in place after the World Trade Center bombing [in 1993], but how many tech people were lost? Are these companies going to be able to fully recover?" asked Henricks, who put out e-mail messages to various contacts to see if they knew of IT relief efforts under way.

On Thursday, Computerworld began building a database of potential IT volunteers and donors. Within an hour, hundreds had offered to pitch in.

Casey Karel, a member of the Corporate Volunteers of New York and director of New York-based Credit Suisse First Boston Corp.'s foundation, which donated $1 million to the relief efforts, said she was just starting to hear on Thursday from affected businesses about the help they need. As more come forward, Karel said, she plans to connect them with those signing up at Computerworld's Volunteer IT site.

"I think everybody is numb still," she said. "But they want to do the right thing."

Germany-based Siemens AG had about 75 people in the World Trade Center, so executives' first concern was for the well-being of staff, said Marty Cravatta, information security manager for the Americas at Siemens. But once everyone was accounted for, managers looked at the bigger picture and decided to offer logistical services to others that operated in the towers, he said.

After accounting for all of its employees, Paris-based Cap Gemini Ernst & Young came forward with offers of fully equipped office space and support volunteers in its advanced development center, located about a block from the New York Stock Exchange. The plan is to use the space, with about 250 to 300 desks, as a sort of triage center to help businesses move critical projects forward, said Lanny Cohen, vice president of strategy and technology services. "The idea started to germinate as early as Tuesday evening," he said. "We said, 'Tomorrow, the sun's going to come up, and we've got to react.'" West Chester, Pa.-based United Messaging Inc. also rallied to action with offers of free e-mail services for companies that operated in the World Trade Center.

"Because we serve large enterprises, we realize how critical e-mail is to them," said Len Gangi, United Messaging's senior vice president of product development and engineering. "We have services available. Let's make those services available to companies in need."

The need is certainly there, not only for individual businesses, but also for the IT infrastructure at large, said Edward Roche, chief research officer at The Research Board Inc. in New York. The devastation at the World Trade Center knocked out major routers, blocked switches, destroyed trading floors and crippled emergency backup systems, he said. "The systems are overwhelmed," said Roche. "Everything's broken."

New York-based IT volunteer organization Voluntech had its network routed near the World Trade Center, so its e-mail was down well into Wednesday. But as soon as the system was back up, Eric Hancock, one of the group's co-founders, began listing tips for volunteers on its Web site.

Harrisburg, Pa.-based TransCore Inc. mobilized its transportation industry business-to-business network to get 700 trucks to the World Trade Center to help with disaster-relief transportation needs.

In many cases, the costs for businesses were substantial, but no one seemed to be talking about that last week.

"There are only two things that make our business go: our people and our clients," said Cap Gemini's Cohen. "So that isn't an issue."

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