Surviving a Natural (or Man-Made) Disaster: How to Prepare for and Bounce Back from a Crisis in Your Business

Feb. 1, 2018
Depending on the location of your shop, the odds of you being the victim of a catastrophic loss from wind, water, fire, earthquake or hazmat spill may be greater or lesser than average. However, a destructive event of some sort in your business is all but inevitable.

Depending on the location of your shop, the odds of you being the victim of a catastrophic loss from wind, water, fire, earthquake or hazmat spill may be greater or lesser than average. However, a destructive event of some sort in your business is all but inevitable. It may take the form of an employee or customer accident, a computer crash or power outage that shuts down your operation or one of those increasingly common, dreaded natural or man-made disasters that puts you out of business long enough for your customers to seek out a competitor - and never return.

The key to minimizing that risk, according to the experts, is a well thought out plan of action in the event that disaster strikes.

Your plan doesn't necessarily have to be in writing. Even if it isn't formally written down, every business owner needs to consider how to continue operating if disaster strikes.

Planning For Disaster

Here are nine steps you can take now to help your business avoid or recover from a catastrophic loss:

Prepare a Disaster Preparation and Recovery Plan

"Every shop needs to have a disaster preparation and recovery plan, even if it's located in a relatively low risk area for natural disasters," said Gene Fairbrother, an expert in disaster planning.

Your plan shouldn't be a cumbersome project, according to Fairbrother.

"To be effective," he said, "it should be a model of clarity, fully understood by every employee."

Whether it's in writing or not, it's important to refresh your plan periodically.

"Some basics of a disaster plan seldom change," he said. "For example, your evacuation destination or the first things you'd grab on your way out if you had to evacuate in a hurry. However, other things do change, like contact information on customers and suppliers and places to find replacement equipment. Review your disaster plan at least once a year to make sure it still works for your shop."

Make Your Disaster Plan Company Policy

"It's important to make your disaster plan a permanent part of your business philosophy," Fairbrother said. "However, it often takes another set of eyes and ears to point out the cracks in a plan or to spot missing components. That's why you should share it with someone else, especially your employees. They may find a flaw or an important step that you missed.

"Beyond the possibility that you might owe some employees a pay check, a business owner has little or no legal obligation to employees if the company closes due to a disaster. Still, you need to make your employees part of your disaster plan. Failing to do so will hinder your ability to get the business back up and running."

Follow these steps to prepare for a natural disaster:

Maintain an Off-Site Backup of all Computer Records

According to one estimate, 90 percent of all business records are now electronic. That makes protection and recovery of vital business information easier, provided a careful system of backing up is in place.

Most business owners have learned the importance of backing up the information on their computers, but not everyone does a complete job.

Stefan Dietrich, Ph.D., co-author of the book, "Contingency Planning and Disaster Recovery: a Small Business Guide" stresses the importance of maintaining an up-to-date backup copy of critical data at an offsite location.

"Unattended automated backups are better than using CDs or thumb drives," he said. "Typically, most people don't follow through with creating backups. For that reason, automated online backups to a remote location via the Internet are much better."

Safeguard Your Most Precious Business Asset

Your lists of customers, insurance companies and vendors are the foundation for the continued health of your business. Of all your business assets, these lists are among the most valuable and irreplaceable. You must do everything possible to make certain you have access to them in the event of any form of disaster.

"If you are out of business for a few days - or longer - you need to let all of your important contacts know what is happening," Fairbrother said. "This means having an easily accessible list of all contact information. As with other business records, it's best if copies of this are stored offsite."

Review Your Insurance Coverage

"Carefully review your insurance policy to make certain it is appropriate for your needs," said Donna Childs, CEO of Childs Capital LLC and co-author of "Contingency Planning and Disaster Recovery: a Small Business Guide." "You should have business interruption insurance to replace lost revenues if your operations are disrupted due to a disaster."

According to Childs, the failure to include business interruption insurance is the most common error in disaster planning for small businesses.

Childs suggested that you take digital photographs of your major physical assets and preserve them online where you can access them remotely.

"Scan critical documents, such as your insurance policies and lease and have digitized copies available online for the same reason," she said.

Provide for Backup Power

"Consider the use of a backup power generator," said management consultant Isidore Kharasch, "so if a disaster strikes, it is not made worse by not having lights and power to at least get people out to safety. In addition, having a backup battery for your computer should be part of your plan. Even if it lasts for only two to three hours, it will give you time to close out servers and shut down the system with your critical records intact.

If Disaster Strikes

In the unfortunate event that your business is fully or partially wiped out by a natural or man-made disaster, your plan should include guidance on how to get it up and running again as quickly as possible. These basic suggestions should be part of your plan:

Provide Physical Security

In the aftermath of any natural disaster, security of business assets is almost certain to have been compromised. As soon as it is possible to do so, you should put any parts of your plan dealing with physical security of your shop's equipment and other assets into effect.

Know Who is There to Help You, and Let Them Know You Need Their Help

"If you are involved in a major disaster, you should be prepared to make early contact with any organization that may be able to offer assistance," said Ernest Vendrell, Ph.D., assistant professor of Emergency Planning Programs at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida. Some of these agencies include:
  • Local offices of emergency management
  • The Small Business Administration
  • Local police and fire services
  • The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA)
  • Your insurance carriers

"In addition to a variety of educational and training guides," Vendrell said. "FEMA also offers a number of disaster planning courses that are typically offered free-of-charge."

"It's important, too, to maintain ongoing contact," Fairbrother said. "During a major disaster, there is always much confusion, and you don't want your business to be the one that falls between the cracks."

Keep Your Customers Updated on a Frequent Basis

If you have protected the information on your customers as recommended above, you can send emails with updates, or you can put the information on your website.

"Remember, too, that your suppliers have businesses of their own to run; they and your customers will appreciate knowing how and when you expect to be back in business," Fairbrother said. "In most cases, they will work with you in your time of need. However, don't lose sight of the fact they have needs of their own and must continue to take care of those needs.

"Maintaining contact with your customers will increase the likelihood that they will stick with you instead of straying off to a competitor."

Don't Wait Until the Aftermath

You will, of course, want to consider other necessary disaster preparation steps unique to your specific situation.

Unless you are located in one of the hurricane or flood-prone areas, preparation for a possible disaster may seem like an unnecessary demand on your time, but every year, thousands of unsuspecting business owners around the country find themselves victimized by a disaster of one form or another. That's why investing a little of your time in preparing a disaster preparation plan now will be a wise business investment.

It is absolutely critical for you to have a disaster recovery plan for your business. Disasters come in all sizes and shapes - not just hurricanes like Harvey and Irma. Fires, flood, ice storms, earthquakes and tornadoes can all take their toll.

All of the experts interviewed for this story agree with that opinion. The last thing you will need if disaster should strike is to be caught unprepared.