On October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy bore down on New York City with gale-force winds, heavy rains and an unexpectedly large 14-foot storm surge. More than 2 million homes lost power for days, and the storm surge flooded vast areas of Long Island, Staten Island and Lower Manhattan.

Shut down by the surge was a 53-story skyscraper called 55 Water Street. Located in the Financial District of Lower Manhattan, the building serves as headquarters for 75-year-old EmblemHealth, a health insurance provider with 3.5 million members — the state’s largest by revenue. The building provides offices for 1,900 company employees who work in customer service, IT, finance, legal, actuarial and claims-processing functions. Hurricane Sandy’s surge swamped the building’s sublevels, where its mechanical and electrical systems reside, as well as its street-level space, rendering it uninhabitable for three months.

Preparing for disaster

EmblemHealth had an extensive disaster recovery and business continuity plan in place ahead of the storm. The core of the plan was to divert incoming calls and emails from members and providers to other EmblemHealth locations, which included a midtown Manhattan facility as well as disaster recovery sites in New Jersey.

The contingency plan worked well. Customer service was operating within hours after the storm hit, handling 15,000 calls a day. A week later, all of the company’s metropolitan offices, except for those in Lower Manhattan, were reopened. “We had assumed that our headquarters might be down for two or three days,” says Arthur Byrd, chief financial officer for EmblemHealth.

However, an engineering assessment led the company’s facilities group to conclude that the building could not reopen for weeks, perhaps months. The headquarters closure and the loss of office space for so many corporate staff employees threatened to disrupt a timely conclusion to the company’s fiscal year-end on December 31.

By the numbers: EmblemHealth

By the end of the first week, the facilities and IT groups successfully restored operating capabilities to customer service and claims. In addition, they relocated about two-thirds of the company’s Lower Manhattan employees to other sites. For the approximately 700 employees left without any workspaces, teleworking was the most viable option. “That’s when we called Dell,” says Jim Moriarty, senior director for information technology at EmblemHealth. “We wanted to see how many laptops we could get quickly, so we could start handing them out the following week to get all of our displaced employees working again.”

EmblemHealth ordered about 900 Dell Latitude E6430 laptops with 4 GB of SDRAM, 500 GB solid-state hybrid drives and 14-inch backlit LED screens. It also ordered several scores of Dell OptiPlex 9010 desktops with 4 GB of SDRAM and 500 GB hard drives. Both PC models were backed by three years of Dell ProSupport comprehensive service.

Normally, the manufacturing turnaround on Latitude laptops is between two and three weeks, but Dell was able to start deliveries almost immediately. “Within days, just the week after we ordered them, we started getting shipments of about 100 Dell laptops a day. This really helped us accelerate putting our employees back to work,” Moriarty says.

The Latitude notebooks enabled headquarters employees to work from home or from alternative work sites; they were also essential to mobile workers such as visiting nurses and health coaches. The OptiPlex desktops replaced ones that IT was unable to salvage from the headquarters building.

The company also needed to provide Citrix® XenDesktop® desktop virtualization capabilities for the small fraction of workers who had established remote dial-in authorizations prior to the storm. In anticipation of getting the Dell laptops, the company’s IT group strengthened its Citrix desktop virtualization backplane by adding server resources.

Gaining flexibility and productivity

Employees who lost their offices felt disconnected from the business. “By helping our employees reengage and reconnect with their fellow employees, Dell’s quick response to our need for a teleworking solution helped reestablish their morale and ability to make meaningful contributions to our business,” explains Byrd.

In addition, employees who were working from home, or from wherever their temporary offices were, could access the company’s intranet to get updates as needed. “By having access to information updates, displaced employees working remotely could stay connected to the business, using their Dell laptops and remote connectivity,” says Byrd.

In January after the storm, EmblemHealth was finally able to begin returning employees to its newly reopened 55 Water Street headquarters. In the interim, its senior executives gained respect for the value of teleworking, which had been used sparingly until Hurricane Sandy hit. “We’re now looking at how we can institutionalize teleworking, especially to provide employees with greater work flexibility and to help the company save on expensive real estate costs,” Byrd says. “We’re expanding teleworking company-wide, given how Dell’s mobility solution helped our displaced employees quickly become productive again.”

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