Statewide computer meltdown in Virginia disrupts DMV, other government business

By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 28, 2010

For a third straight day Friday, none of Virginia's Department of Motor Vehicles locations were able to issue driver's licenses because of a statewide government computer breakdown.

The outage, the widest-reaching in the state since 2007, also left food stamp applicants unable to alter their payments late this week, and on Thursday, those filing for unemployment claims found the Web site shut down, officials said.

The computer troubles were traced to a hardware malfunction at the state's data center near Richmond, which caused 228 storage servers to go off-line. Workers restored at least 75 percent of the servers overnight.

But the state's 74 DMV locations are still facing problems, with customers unable to obtain new or replacement driver's licenses or identification cards, said Melanie Stokes, a Virginia DMV spokeswoman. The outages are expected to last through at least Saturday.

"Managers are standing outside, telling folks that they're sorry but we can't process driver's license requests," said Stokes, who estimated that about 6,500 people daily seek licenses in person.

August traditionally brings the longest average wait times of the year at the DMV, and many Northern Virginia service centers were swamped with frustrated drivers. The last week in August is typically the busiest week of the month, and DMV officials say they will be staffed to full capacity next week.

At the Tysons Corner DMV office on Gallows Road, a security guard told customers about the computer issues and advised them to use the state's Web site to renew their licenses. But many of those in line said their renewal notices explicitly stated that they were not eligible to bring their documents up to date online.

Tarek Elalaily, 33, of McLean said he showed up at the Tysons Corner DMV office for three consecutive days -- Wednesday, Thursday and Friday -- in an attempt to get his New York driver's license switched over to Virginia, to no avail.

"You'd think we're in a third-world country," Elalaily said Friday. "It's just frustrating, and they don't know when it will be fixed."

Ruth Perlman, 49, of Dunn Loring called the DMV's problems "a huge inconvenience."

"You have to leave work to come here, and they say it's not working," she said. "That's money lost."

Twenty-four of the state's nearly 90 agencies were impacted. Other affected agencies include the departments of Transportation, Taxation, Social Services, Emergency Management, Alcoholic Beverage cControl and the Virginia Employment Commission.

This week's computer troubles are the latest episode involving Northrop Grumman's $2 billion computer contract, the largest contract of any kind in the commonwealth's history. A Virginia legislative audit released October found that the computer system had adversely affected almost every state agency that uses a computer and that the cost to terminate the contract could run $400 million.

Virginia officials, which had awarded Northrop the contract in 2005, reworked its agreement in April and extended its contract by three years, expanding its scope and adding to the price tag.

This week's hardware meltdown, officials said, was caused when a component of the servers and its backup both failed.

Marcella Williamson, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Information Technology Agency, said that there is no timetable for restoration of services but that officials were optimistic that its online tools would be "back up Monday morning."

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