Finance center to shift data from New Orleans to Denver

Risk of hurricanes prompts permanent relocation of hardware that helps process pay checks for more than 500,000 federal employees.

The threat of cataclysmic hurricanes coinciding with the end the government's fiscal year has prompted the Agriculture Department's National Finance Center to move its data processing hardware from New Orleans to Denver.

The hardware was at the center's New Orleans headquarters until Hurricane Katrina forced the agency to move it to Philadelphia temporarily. The permanent relocation is scheduled for the spring, and will cost about $12 million, said Jerry Lohfink, the center's director.

Only about a dozen employees will be needed to manage the new information technology operation at the Denver Financial Center. There are no plans to require workers in New Orleans to move to Denver, Lohfink said. Those in New Orleans will have remote access to information from Denver.

The move was prompted by concerns about maintaining continuity of operations when computer hardware is housed in areas at a high risk for natural disasters.

NFC is one the largest employers in New Orleans, with more than 1,300 employees. It serves the payroll and human resources needs of about 585,000 federal employees at various of agencies.

The agency began the process of identifying an alternative site for its data processing hardware in 2005 after a continuity of operations review recommended the step. A damage assessment conducted after Hurricane Katrina confirmed the need for a long-term location outside the hurricane-prone area, Lohfink said.

"A risk profile showed that our data processing centers were at hurricane risk right at the end of the fiscal season," he said. "We decided that Denver was the best alternative. Every now and then they get a little bit of snow."

The agency will recruit for two federal positions to help staff the new Denver facility and if any current New Orleans personnel want to make the move, they would receive first priority, Lohfink said. The remaining staff will be hired through a local contractor in Denver.

"No one is losing a job due to the Denver transition," Lohfink said. "We have numerous vacancies due to Katrina and can easily place the couple of folks who currently support on-site operations [in Philadelphia]."

The site beat out another a federal data center finalist in Albuquerque, N.M. Factors that influenced the selection process included cost, infrastructure and the technical talent employable in the area, according to the agency.

Two years ago, the evacuation of the NFC due to anticipated damage from Hurricane Ivan forced the suspension of many Thrift Savings Plan services.

In May, the NFC gave up its TSP duties to a contractor ahead of schedule because Hurricane Katrina left the facility in poor physical condition and understaffed. The center's TSP-related work has been taken over by SI International.