Lines wrapped around the corner early Monday morning with people waiting to get into the Baton Rouge Office of Motor Vehicles for the first time in a week after a ransomware attack crippled state government computer systems.

Most state government agencies were back up Monday with only a few flutters here and there. But getting OMV back on line has proven most difficult.

The Office of Motor Vehicles has more computers and does more face-to-face work with the public than any other state agency. 

“Things are improving,” Louisiana Office of Motor Vehicle Commissioner Karen St. Germain said Monday afternoon. The main regional offices opened Monday were able to issue drivers’ licenses and vehicle registrations. She hopes, but can’t guarantee, to have 10 other offices opening – including Breaux Bridge, Gonzales, Houma and Pineville – sometime Tuesday. Technicians spent Monday testing the machines at those offices.

Dozens of the privately-owned facilities, called Public Tag Agent Offices, have been able to go back online. But many can offer only limited services because of connectivity issues, she said.

State technicians found the virus early on Monday morning Nov. 18 and following the state's plan began shutting down computer systems, including the 5,000 servers, to keep the infection from spreading. The virus locked legitimate users out of their computers until a ransom was paid. The ransomware attack damaged 10% of Louisiana's computer servers for state government. But officials say no data was lost and no ransom was paid.

But in some instances, the computer systems had to be rebuilt from the state's backup and recovery systems. 

Doors opened at 8:02 a.m. at the Baton Rouge OMV – only 100 yards from headquarters building – and began processing customers.

Some at the front line had been waiting since 6 a.m. to take care of tasks they would have handled last week if the OMV offices were open.

Halie Variste’s intermediate driver’s license expired last week and she was near the front clutching paperwork necessary to renew.

Elnora Jacobs, also of Baton Rouge, had a birthday last week and needed to renew her driver’s license and handicapped tag.

Neither will be fined for being late under an order issued Friday by Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Inside, the OMV office looked like a regular day with customers approaching the main desk, where their paperwork was checked by computer. Then they took a seat waiting for their number to be called. Supervisors scurried around with cell phones locked to their ears, looking over shoulders as the OMV got going again.

The line that reportedly stretched out the front door after the 8 a.m. opening of the OMV’s New Orleans’ office on Veterans Blvd. had shrunk by 11:30 a.m. Though everyone was able to wait indoors, almost every chair was full inside the facility, which was not handling license reinstatements or driving tests.

A few irritated residents discovered the agency’s limited services after reading a sign taped to the front door, or worse, after standing in line for a bit, only to be turned around.

Luckily, that wasn’t the case for Thomas Blum, of Kenner. He’d learned about the computer hack after trying to turn in the license plate for his daughter’s car. Blum stopped by on the first day of the shut down last week when officials still hoped the problem would be resolved by noon of that day.

But Blum spent the next couple of days occasionally driving by to check the parking lot for signs the office had reopened.

“I was inconvenienced for a week,” said Blum, who did compliment the efficiency of the front desk staff who fielded his inquiry on Monday after a brief, 10-minute wait.

Daisia McFarland, of New Orleans, had a longer wait than Blum Monday because she went to obtain an identification card. She, too, tried to stop by the OMV last week during the shut-down.

But McFarland said the wait Monday wasn’t unusually long.

“It’s really no different than any other day,” she said. “Unfortunately, we all know how the DMV is.”

OMV has 79 state-run offices and the 160 privately owned tag shops around the state. OMV opened eight of its main regional locations Monday morning. Other branch locations will resume operations after technical staff ensures the computer systems are functioning properly.

Unlike food stamps and hunting licenses, which can be applied for online, a driver’s license needs specific documentation, like a birth certificate, that must be scanned and stored. It’s a transaction that requires a state worker to verify the documents and to look into the eyes of the applicant.

Basically, the programming has to be scraped from individual computers to ensure the virus language has been removed. Then the softwares, the links, databases, browsers – everything necessary to make the unit operate and coordinate with other computers – needs to be reinstalled, or “reimaged” using tech lingo.

OMV’s computer system is about 40 years old and connected to a main frame. While the virus was caught before it infected the mainframe, some of the older computers at work stations and elsewhere didn’t reimage properly because of their age.

Commissioner St. Germain was in the process of gradually replacing those older units and had 52 newer computers standing by. Another 100 are on the way. She said the ransomware attack required stepping up that changeout because older computers just stopped working.

“We had a plan of action, maybe not as fast as everyone used to the speed of the internet wants, but faster than anybody else,” Louisiana Cybersecurity Commission Chairman Craig Spohn said Monday.

It took Baltimore more than a month to restore its computer system after a similar attack in May. Atlanta spent more than $2.7 million recovering services after databases were destroyed in March 2018.

The commission was founded two years ago and includes National Guard and State Police technicians as well as government and private experts. The commission came up with the protocol and procedures used by the state when the attack was discovered. “The plan worked. It did what it was supposed to do,” Spohn said.

Based on the similarity to other attacks, Spohn said the attack was likely done by professional criminals who target poorly funded government agencies, lock up their computers and leaving public officials no choice but to pay the ransom.

The following locations opened Monday:

  • Baton Rouge - 7701 Independence Boulevard
  • New Orleans - 100 Veterans Blvd
  • Shreveport - 9310 Normandie Drive
  • Lake Charles - 951 Main Street
  • Alexandria - 5602 Coliseum Boulevard
  • Monroe - 5171 Northeast Road
  • Lafayette - 3241 N.W. Evangeline Thruway
  • Thibodaux - 1424 Tiger Drive

Bob Warren of The Times-Picayune / New Orleans Advocate contributed to this report.

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.