Over the years, the CIO’s role has been stretched and shaped in all sorts of directions -- tech geek, change agent, business analyst, consultant, chief collaborator and so on. But one fundamental job requirement that has never changed is the need to ensure that critical systems don’t miss a beat. In the business, it’s known as “keeping the lights on.”

For New Jersey CIO E. Steven Emanuel, the biggest test he’s faced in that regard came last October when Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast. The storm -- packing winds near 100 mph -- wiped out power to more than 8.5 million people and was particularly tough on communications networks. At one point, Sandy knocked out 25 percent of the cellphone towers in an area spread across 10 states, according to the Federal Communications Commission. 

Read the May issue of Governing magazine. 

But by and large, important computer systems and networks operated by the state -- including a new public safety mobile radio system -- withstood the storm. Emanuel says that’s due to a little bit of luck and a lot of preparation.

One of the state’s smartest moves was anticipating potential power interruptions and ensuring that emergency generators had enough fuel to ride out the storm. Generator fuel tanks were refilled every 24 hours, thanks to an arrangement between the New Jersey Department of Transportation and the state’s Office of Information Technology. “We had all of our diesel generators running at all of our facilities throughout the event,” Emanuel says.

And they realized that normal communication methods like work cellphones and email addresses might not work, so they gathered personal contact information for essential personnel.

Emanuel and his staff also had a pretty good idea where weak links might be hiding after upgrading electrical power at one of the state’s primary data centers about a year before Sandy hit. The project doubled the facility’s electrical capacity, which involved cutting power to hundreds of core applications running on state servers and then turning them all back on again. Plans developed for that project and the experience gained from it proved valuable as the state prepared for Sandy’s assault. “We learned a lot about vulnerabilities,” Emanuel says. “And a lot of our people participated in that exercise, so they knew their roles and responsibilities.”

One final takeaway is that assistance may come from unexpected places. The state’s IT vendors were extremely helpful during the storm and recovery, he says. So much so that he’s comparing notes with them to see what the state can learn from their emergency tactics.

Numerous state CIOs offered help, too. Emanuel sees a great opportunity for state CIOs to help disaster-stricken colleagues by coordinating communications with suppliers and performing other types of legwork. With the storm behind him, he is thinking about how CIOs can lend a hand or share useful applications during emergency response and recovery. “It’s all about lessons learned -- what can we share with each other so that we know what we’re going to run into and what we can do for each other,” he says.

Sharing those lessons might make it a little easier to keep the lights on next time a storm hits.