Year without a Storm? Complacency – the Enemy of Effective Disaster Recovery

By Theresa Williams|2022-03-29T20:05:47+00:00January 1st, 2008|0 Comments
Within a few days of Hurricane Katrina walloping the U.S. Gulf Coast, when the scope of the damage was still far from completely understood, the severe storm was being called the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. Later this would be substantiated by the casualty count and property damage estimates.
The impact was so great that many felt it undermined national attention to recovery from Hurricane Rita, another devastating hurricane to strike less than a month later. It’s not surprising then that industry watchers and property owners alike expressed relief in 2006: the year without a storm.

However, it is a sweeping and flawed review to consider 2006 a quiet year. In fact, FEMA counts 52 major natural disasters in 2006, an average of one each week of the year, up from 48 natural disasters identified in stormy 2005. Although 2006 brought no large, heavily publicized hurricanes, it was an incredibly active year for destructive weather events in the U.S., including extensive flooding in the Northeast, tornadoes in the Midwest, icy blasts and more.

Facilities are susceptible to a gamut of misfortune, from natural disasters to a fire or pipe break that affects a single structure. Facility managers are responsible to the company’s employees and stakeholders to practice sound disaster recovery planning and to resist complacency.

Planning the sustainability of a facility during crisis involves many more proactive steps than writing a generic disaster plan and shelving it away, along with fear you will ever have to consult it. Protective measures include proper inspection and maintenance of the company’s structures, installation of devices to protect mission-critical equipment or documents and taking inventory of assets.

Just as licensed professionals should perform physical reinforcement, it is also important to consult veteran disaster recovery specialists for familiarization surveys and to ascertain site-specific needs in emergency situations.

What Katrina proved about recovery planning
The state of many businesses still languishing in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina should be a matter of concern for business owners and facility managers everywhere. Katrina’s ramifications show that in the event of an area-wide disaster, a business’s recovery process may last 12, 18, or 24 months or more – far longer than most disaster plans consider. This is primarily due to limited resources and ancillary support businesses being affected as well.

In catastrophic events, a company and its recovery service providers will prioritize recovery efforts, focusing first on either the most severely damaged parts or those which have the largest impact on the day-to-day business. To illustrate this point, imagine a food company that has a respectable market share of sandwich bread in several states. The company operates several bakeries each with a service area of a few hundred miles. If one were knocked out of commission by a natural disaster, the company would fail to supply grocers in that service area. The first step in disaster recovery would be to assess the greatest risk the company now faces and its most imminent needs during a project meeting. (While this may have been addressed in advance with the recovery specialists, it is impossible to predict all possible perils.)While New Orleans grapples with hurricanes, other natural disasters present the same recovery challenges in their areas of devastation: communications, access and transportation issues, administrative red tape and more. Many of these problems linger for days, weeks or months because in crisis situations, each organization is occupied with the projects within its scope of reach. These activities are prioritized by level of immediacy and severity. More thorough recovery planning, done in conjunction with a company specializing in disaster recovery and in advance of any event, will shorten recovery periods and limit the extent of permanent damage.


The company executives will evaluate the crisis with its response team and may determine its greatest risk to be losing valuable shelf space in grocery stores. Understanding this, the recovery partners could first focus on storage and distribution areas of the damaged bakery, recommending that other bakeries add shifts to increase production. With some space restored at the damaged facility, it could accept the excess loaves produced at other facilities in order to maintain its regular distribution demands as the remainder of the production facility is restored. More facility managers are now engaging in this continuity planning and organizing strategic plans before a catastrophe occurs. Again, they are best apt to handle catastrophe if they have taken preemptive action.

Of all businesses that close following a disaster, some recovery analysts estimate that more than 30 percent never reopen. Environmental or situational obstacles that impact the region or the company’s supply chain are often to blame. In post-Katrina New Orleans, a major obstacle was the limitation of local government, which faced the same organizational challenges that the private sector did. All critical city departments including licensing and permitting suffered from flooded facilities, an incapacitated computer network, a displaced workforce and excessive demand. Trouble getting demolition and rebuilding permits hindered response for months.

However, a company’s inability to recover from devastation is much more often the result of having done little or no disaster planning or being under-insured – factors within the company’s control.

All companies, whether they have a single facility or multiple locations, should conduct a business impact analysis that identifies what protections should be in place before a disaster and what is required to run the business from a remote or alternative location. It is critical to have disaster recovery partners in place in advance, as demonstrated in the case of a major New Orleans university impacted by Katrina. The university had 87 buildings with flood damage, but rallied swiftly and deliberately with its recovery partner. Because the relationship was pre-existing, restoration finished on schedule and allowed classes to resume the following semester in January.

The argument for continuity planning has never been stronger than in 2006 in the Gulf Coast. In the New Orleans metro area in particular, the number of residents and open businesses have crept to about half of pre-Katrina levels. Both economic markers are lagging previous projections because too few provisions were in place.

07DRG_p132Much of today’s disaster recovery experience comes from the technology area. It addresses how to shield electronic data and the assets stored on information systems, with the assumption that paper documents would be destroyed. Thus the bulk of the invaluable data today is stored at hot or cold sites and can be accessed even if the primary storage device is lost.The life cycle of disaster recovery planning
Today, risk managers should know that creative, strategic thinking is involved in well-developed crisis planning. Facility, risk and corporate managers, HR and corporate communications personnel should have a seat at the table when discussing or updating disaster plans with outside recovery partners. The scope of work is too far-reaching for any one of these departments to tackle alone. Lessons learned from pitfalls encountered by other companies will make this open dialogue richer and more productive.

Despite technology advances toward a “paperless” society, we are still very far from it. Therefore, appropriate planning encompasses much more than computers and acknowledges the sustained value of paper as well as data systems. In many cases, the most pressing projects of the day are not yet backed up off-site and are sitting on desktops, vulnerable to fire, water, wind or other damage that could strike unexpectedly. And where would a company be without its archives of client and employee files, documents of past work and chronicles of its history? Are all these properly backed up? Very few companies have reliable redundancy of their files. Therefore, dramatic advancements in the recovery industry target traditional files as much as high-tech methods. Disaster recovery specialists are using cutting-edge methods of reclaiming valuable papers and consulting their clients to limit such damage before the onset.

Recovery of facilities is extremely important as well for companies or individual business units to return to pre-incident productivity. In most cases, temporary facilities simply are not as conducive to day-to-day operations as the company’s permanent home. While restoration techniques for buildings are sophisticated, restorative completion represents more than a technological feat. Reopening a facility begins the restoring of morale among employees who have been displaced. They want to return to their homes, familiar workspaces and to be reunited with co-workers.

Is your company prepared for its next catastrophic event? Has your internal response team considered the residual effects of isolated incidents? Consider an isolated fire in a break room in one suite of an office building that sets off the sprinkler system, dousing papers and computers of tenants on all floors. This is the type of chain-reaction scenario risk managers must anticipate in order to be sufficiently poised to react quickly and effectively for disruptions of any size. Therefore, “a year without a storm” is shortsighted comfort for risk and facility managers who know that it does not take area-wide disaster to cause a crisis situation for a particular company.

Moreover, it is likely that any relative calm the Gulf Coast appreciated in 2006 will not be repeated in 2007, with a projection of 17 named storms in the upcoming hurricane season. This underscores the mantra disaster planners share: plan, prepare, organize, then plan, prepare and organize again. And if all else fails, pray.

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About the Author: Theresa Williams

Theresa Williams is executive vice president, national marketing and sales, of BELFOR USA, the worldwide leader in disaster recovery services and solutions. With more than 18 years of real-world experience in disaster recovery and restoration, Williams has directed numerous large-scale commercial disaster restoration projects including most major domestic hurricanes in the last two decades; the Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles; the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; tornadoes; hailstorms and floods across the continent. Williams can be reached at (817) 535-6793 or [email protected].

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