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IP telephony unites New Orleans nonprofit after Katrina

Hurricane Katrina nearly disbanded the Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans, until the nonprofit rolled out a hosted voice solution from RingCentral.

During those first confusing days after Katrina, communications in the Crescent City were at a standstill -- families displaced, streets and homes flooded, people fleeing at a rapid clip.

Over one weekend, most of the city was dispersed. People left their offices on Friday thinking they'd be back in on Monday. In most cases they weren't.

For the Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans (CCANO), the hurricane that crippled the city hit hard. Many of its 1,000 employees were spread across the country. But there was still work to be done -- more work than before, because the nonprofit also had to aid Katrina's victims.

"We no longer had offices," said Margaret Dubisson, the communications director for CCANO. "We needed some way to get to people and connect them. It wasn't possible to bring all 1,000 employees back [to New Orleans]. It was a very unsettled and frightening time for many people."

Shortly before Katrina, CCANO had found RingCentral, a San Mateo, Calif.-based hosted Internet telephony vendor. Little did it know that once the hurricane hit, that communication system would be the organization's life-blood. It wasn't until Katrina hit that the system was put to the test.

"We were trying to improve the communications portion of our emergency plans," Dubisson said. "At the beginning of hurricane season 2005, after a couple of strong threats, it was decided we needed a toll-free emergency contact number for employees to use if needed. During Hurricane Katrina, most local phone services were inoperable, and cell phone coverage in the 504 area code was overloaded. It was very difficult to even locate our employees, much less communicate with them, since calling time was limited by the phone companies."

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Initially, CCANO set up a toll-free number through RingCentral, a sort of IP telephony meeting place where employees could check in with "myriad questions," Dubisson said. Questions ranged from insurance and payroll queries to personal ones.

"Catholic Charities used RingCentral in order to give employees somewhere to check in for information, provide us with their current contact information and status, and at a later point, to provide a number for people needing assistance," she said.

The system worked. A year later, CCANO has 900 of its 1,000 pre-Katrina employees. But Dubisson said that is no reason for the company to rest on its laurels.

"We are just finalizing our hurricane plan for 2006 of lessons learned," she said. "Communications have got to be better. We've got to totally focus on staying connected."

The RingCentral system will remain as a disaster recovery option, Dubisson said. The toll-free number will remain in use. Currently, since no emergency conditions are in place, callers are greeted with a recorded message. But if disaster strikes, that will change.

"Based on our Katrina experience," she said, "it was critical that this happen automatically, so callers can always get through."

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