By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer

The crash of a key city computer server is stymieing work across New Orleans’ already strained government and making it tougher for residents to get the services and information they need.

City employees began complaining last month about problems accessing the documents and e-mail accounts they depend on.  Lost in a hubbub of budget negotiations, a Sewerage & Water Board power failure and an unrelated plague of computer problems at Civil District Court, the trouble went largely unnoticed. About a week and a half ago, that all changed when one of the servers that supports the city’s network failed, affecting “nearly everyone” in city government, Chief Information Officer Allen Square said today.

The crash took down about 20 percent of the city’s 5,000 to 6,000 e-mail accounts and a trove of documents shared across offices and departments, Square said.

“If you’re in a Windows environment, typically you store all your files in ‘My Documents.’ Access to those files have not been there for people,” he said.

Square explained the crash as akin to the collapse of “a physical shelf” storing folders of e-mails and city documents. He said the mishap could not have been prevented with the city’s technological infrastructure as it is, and that investing the time and resources needed to fix the problem quickly was impossibility given everything else going on at the moment.

“With our current budget crisis, we’ve not been able to make those investments quick enough” Square said.

City employees are not the only ones frustrated by the computer collapse. For residents, the computer failure has hamstrung efforts to communicate with the public servants who neighborhoods depend on.

“A lot of what we do is based on information from City Hall. If we cannot get the information or the notices, then we are dead in the water,” said Meg Lousteau, executive director of the Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates.

City Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson on Wednesday described the computer troubles bedeviling City Hall as “terrible.”

On Tuesday, an e-mail sent to a city attorney by a reporter for The Lens bounced back. Wednesday, a deputy city attorney called to explain that the city could not provide public payroll records requested two weeks ago because of the computer crash.

“We are having major, major computer problems,” city attorney Dawn Segura said, adding that she did not expect that the city’s tech office to resolve the problems and thus, be able to process the requested documents “anytime soon.”

Tech czar Square said Wednesday that his goal for 2011 is “no major crashes.”  Money has been set aside to pay for modernizing computer systems with early warning detection systems, he said.

“Because if you get early warnings, then you get an opportunity to try and address them,” he said.

But even as the city struggles to address the technology failure befalling it, at least one person is learning from it.

“It falls into a broad category of learning how to do things quicker and to make sure systems are in place to deliver results,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said Wednesday, adding that “nothing is going to change overnight.”