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IT disaster recovery planning and earthquake emergency response: Lessons learned from Haiti

Recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile moves earthquake emergency response to the forefront of IT disaster recovery planning in many geographic regions, and remind organizations of the unique challenges a disaster of this type poses.

The 2010 Haiti earthquake killed more than 210,000 people, and approximately 1 million people were evacuated from...

their homes. That disaster was followed about a month later by the 2010 Chilean earthquake, which scientists said shifted the earth's axis and generated a blackout that affected 93% of the country and lasted for several days in some areas. And more recently, the earthquake in China's death toll is nearing 2,400 according to recent reports.

In the aftermath of Katrina and other hurricanes a few years back, IT staffs in certain geographic areas made hurricane preparation a top priority in IT disaster recovery (DR) planning.

These earthquakes in Haiti and Chile should prompt IT organizations to look at how they're prepared to survive earthquakes, just as Katrina and other hurricanes a few years back made hurricane preparation a top priority in IT disaster recovery planning in certain geographic areas.

But getting started withdisaster recovery planning is easier said than done for many organizations. Earthquake emergency response has nuances that make it different than IT DR planning for other types of disasters.

Top 10 earthquake states
The following states have the highest incidents of reported earthquakes in the past 30 years:
1. Alaska
2. California
3. Hawaii
4. Nevada
5. Washington
6. Idaho
7. Wyoming
9. Utah
10. Oregon

Source: U.S. Geological Survey

Unlike hurricanes, earthquakes usually strike without warning, meaning you must have a well-developed evacuation plan for the employees in your organization.

"Evacuation route options should be defined, signs should be placed throughout the building indicating exit routes, and staff should be assigned to verify that all employees have been evacuated," said Paul Kirvan, CISA, CSSP, FBCI, CBCP, independent disaster recovery and business continuity consultant, and secretary of the Business Continuity Institute. "Beyond that, ensure that critical systems and data, as well as vital records, are securely and regularly backed up to an alternate location that is not in the earthquake zone."

He added, "Normal business continuity/disaster recovery plan actions can be followed if the earthquake is not too severe, and damage is minimal. Ensure that alternate work locations -- again not in the earthquake zone, if possible -- are secured, properly configured, and the locations known to employees. Be prepared to discard any BC/DR plan you have developed and operate on an ad hoc basis, simply because the severity of the quake may make it impossible to utilize the plans. Develop procedures to try and follow 'if all else fails' so that human life can be protected."

More on earthquakes and disaster recovery planning
How do IT disaster recovery plans for an earthquake disaster differ from preparing for other disasters?

Companies in Bay Area brace for another 'big one' 

Remote data center management for disaster recovery purposes

On the West Coast of the United States, earthquake preparation is taken much more seriously than on the East Coast, where terrorist attacks, hurricanes and severe snow storms are the main disasters.

"On the West Coast, our orientation is different. Earthquakes and fires are our main concerns," said David Coggeshall, managing director of consulting firm San Francisco Communications.

And rightly so. FEMA and other organizations have predicted that there is a 62% chance that California will have another major earthquake in the next 10 years (see "Top 10 earthquake states").

Earthquake recovery often more difficult than other types of DR efforts

Coggeshall noted earthquake recovery is quite different than recovery from other disasters such as a terrorist attack, which often involves a single location. When there's an earthquake, recovery is incredibly difficult. There are "myriad of incidents," he said. "The first hour or two are the most critical in finding out where the most critical disasters are."

Several things that happened during and after the Haiti earthquake are worth noting for IT managers and disaster recovery planners that reflect today's changing technologies. News of that disaster was communicated largely by civilians using social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook, and sending photos and news of the earthquake's destruction through cell phones, said Dr. Martin Griss, director of Carnegie Mellon's Silicon Valley Campus.

"The public was using mobile devices to take pictures and to communicate where disasters were," Griss added. "Information was flowing much more rapidly than in other more rigid [disaster recovery] systems."

Coggeshall also said it's important for the private and the public sector to work more closely in the aftermath of disasters. "Public safety isn't just the responsibility of the government. We have to engage the private and the public sector," he said.

Carnegie Mellon University's Silicon Valley campus recently announced its Disaster Management Initiative (DMI). The DMI is a new technology partnership aimed at bringing partners and individuals together to work on more efficient disaster recovery and emergency management solutions between the public, emergency responders and command centers in California and the rest of the world. They kicked off this announcement with a workshop and event called CrisisCampSiliconValley. The workshops were aimed at improving technology and planning for humanitarian crises and disasters.

More than three months after the Haiti earthquake, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is still working with others in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), various branches of the U.S. military, and other federal and international agencies to help communities in Haiti recover from the disaster.

What have disaster recovery planners learned from the recent earthquake disasters?

What lessons can IT disaster recovery planners learn from this disaster? "It reminds business owners that they must establish a DR solution," said Cem Kursunoglu, CEO of San Francisco-based consulting company BayNode.

Approximately 60% to 70% of the companies Kursunoglu works with already have some form of DR solution, largely a reflection of his location.

Whether or not the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chili will raise awareness in business continuity and disaster recovery planning remains to be seen. Kirvan said, "A short-term increase occurred in [business continuity and disaster recovery planning] in New York City following Sept. 11, but nothing happened across the rest of the country.

"The one way that U.S. businesses will take BC/DR seriously is if laws are enacted that mandate the process. Market segments that are heavily regulated, such as banking, take BC/DR seriously because they must be compliant with the regulations," Kirvan added.

But Kursunoglu said the recent earthquakes probably won't make a huge different in DR and BC awareness because where he works and lives "earthquakes are a constant worry. They are not a forgotten issue."


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