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Disaster recovery and business continuity planning strategies for natural disasters

Disasters aren't just limited to human errors or hardware and software failures. Companies must also plan for natural disasters that may also affect their business.

Although the possibility of natural disasters propels many companies to conceive or update disaster recovery (DR) or business continuity (BC) plans, most major business interruptions are more mundane.

The key to an effective disaster recovery plan for natural disasters on a limited budget is to conduct a risk assessment, focusing on those scenarios most likely to impact your business, said William Hughes, director, consulting services BC/DR Center of Excellence at SunGard Availability Services.

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The impact of natural disasters

"Many companies only talk about organizational resiliency versus DR, but what about an extraordinary event?" Hughes asked. "On the other hand, companies that focus on DR may not recognize the continuum of events that might occur."

If a fire strikes a building, for example, the response is fairly straightforward: The fire department arrives and puts out the fire. But in a natural disaster, many agencies might respond with conflicting mandates. If residents of a particular area are forced to evacuate, does the company's disaster recovery plan cover that?

Money spent on a disaster recovery plan will go further if the plan is as flexible as possible to accommodate differing scenarios, Hughes said.

More than 50 federal disasters are declared each year in the U.S. and Canada, said John Lieffrig, regional vice president at Modular Space Corp. (ModSpace), a leading provider of temporary and permanent modular buildings.

"Nine times out of 10, we don't get involved until after the fact," Lieffrig said. "If you'd sat down with us ahead of time, we'd already have your requirements on file and could get a temporary building and/or storage facility to you quickly."

If a company's temporary building needs are on file, ModSpace can mobilize within a day. Without advance planning, that response is more likely a week.

Today's portable buildings are top of the line and pre-wired for most common business applications.

"Most often, companies think about evacuating employees but don't think about what they're going to do if the building gets destroyed," Lieffrig said.

ModSpace has developed a "Disaster Preparedness Recovery Guide" to help businesses to prepare for natural disasters, what to do during a natural disaster and how to rehabilitate in case a natural disaster hits.

Companies should focus on the natural disasters mostly likely to impact their businesses. Low-lying and coastal areas from Texas to North Carolina and beyond recognize the threat of hurricanes and flooding, just as those in the Midwest and portions of the South realize that tornadoes are a real threat. Also, those in the West are particularly aware of earthquakes.

In addition to large-scale disasters, companies should be aware of potential local events. Portland, Ore., is typically hit by ice storms twice a year, said Hughes, so companies in that area should prepare accordingly. Atlanta, on the other hand, rarely has significant ice accumulations, but the last time it occurred, the city was disrupted for more than a week. In order to avoid disasters like these, companies should assess their tolerance for risk.

New risks on the horizon

A new risk on the minds of many business executives is the possibility of a significant swine flu outbreak, said Vicki Wheaton, employee communications manager at Seattle-based Varolii Corp., a provider of hosted software system and support services to help client companies manage interactions with customers and employees.

To improve communication links between employees in an organization, or to alert employees of a pandemic outbreak, notification trees can be set up in advance and triggered via the Web, 800 number or hand-held device. Those notifications also can occur automatically in response to a specific event, such as the loss of power to a data center.

Communications also can be two-way, with employees reporting on their day-to-day status to a central repository or calling in for day-specific or scheduling information, Wheaton said.

"Two years ago, the prospect of a bird flu outbreak caught our attention, and we built an application specific to pandemic notification based on best practices," Wheaton said. "Now swine flu has put that back on the map."

As companies continue to develop disaster recovery and business continuity plans, natural disaster preparedness should be an important part of any discussion. Those plans should include what to do should the office become flooded or otherwise uninhabitable, notification systems so employees know what's going on and how to respond, alternative work arrangements and other considerations.

Although the likelihood of a power outage or human error is much greater than the chance of a natural disaster, a little preparation on the front end can go a long way to alleviate the impact of any situation that might occur. And that could mean the difference between a business surviving a disaster or not.

About this author: Matt Bolch ( is an Atlanta-based freelance writer who regularly contributes to more than a dozen consumer and trade magazines on a wide range of topics, including technology and general business.

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