IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

A good plan for bad weather

It's not too late for small businesses to prepare for hurricane season. Here's how.
A damaged building sits among debris on St. Bernard Avenue in New Orleans
A damaged building sits among debris on St. Bernard Avenue in New Orleans on Jan. 25, 2006.Lee Celano / Reuters
/ Source: Forbes

Two weeks into hurricane season and all is well — for now. Weather experts say the carnage won't be as horrendous as last year, but that's no reason not to plan ahead.

Surprisingly, many entrepreneurs don't take the basic steps to prepare for a major storm. The consequences of not backing up computer data, lining up an emergency generator or having a way to contact scattered employees can be catastrophic. Office Depot says about 43 percent of businesses pounded by a natural disaster never reopen.

"Many people don't understand the enormity of the damage that can be caused by a hurricane, tornado, flood or fire," says Jon Toigo, chief executive officer of Toigo Partners International, a disaster recovery consulting firm in Tampa, Fla. "A few businesses make no plans at all. This isn't rocket science — for the most part, it's common sense."

If you haven't already backed up your computer data, get to it. (For a primer on data storage, check out "Secure Your Company's Future For Under $300"). Just be sure you don't keep the back-up in a filing cabinet at the office — where it's just waiting to be mangled by the storm.

"Hurricanes are seen as the ultimate calamity, but in most cases, you have at least 30 hours warning," says Ronald Bergeron, owner of Bergeron Land Development Co. in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "That's plenty of time to back up your data if you haven't already done so and to remove all computers from the office." Bergeron says 50 miles is the minimum distance to assure safety.

Consider storing two sets of electronic backup data in different locations as far apart as practical. A mom-and-pop operation can simply e-mail basic information to a Yahoo! or Google account. Need a high degree of security? Check out eVault, SunGard Availability Services or TeleVault — they store backup data over the Web for all sizes of business.

Be careful, though, of who's minding the storage. The bumbling U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs recently lost identifying information for 26.5 million vets, including Social Security numbers and dates of birth. Such data is red meat for identity thieves. The lesson: Limit the number of people who are authorized to handle your data, rigorously enforce the rules, and anytime key data is moved off site, make sure it's encrypted.

Chances are, you may not need all that data right away. To stay afloat in the short term, slap together a "grab-and-go" bag containing a laptop with critical information that you can take with you during evacuation. Make sure, too, that your emergency equipment is compatible with your other systems.

Of course, backup data without electricity to bring your network to life is useless. Power outages following major storms can last for days or even weeks — long enough to kick the stuffing out of a small business. Some 10 million people in the southeast had their power knocked out for some extended period in the last two years, estimates Rusty Walker, vice president of sales at Power To Go in Tampa, Fla.

Power To Go provides towable generators, and the fuel to run them, during extended outages. Too often companies pay big bucks to get on a waiting list for a generator, but forget to sock away fuel to run it — a big problem considering that gas stations can't run their pumps without electricity. Having a generator allows you to get a jump on the competition by re-opening quickly. Better yet, turning on the lights assures the community that the worst is over and things are getting back to normal. In short, your business becomes a beacon — and that's better than just about any advertising plan.

Power To Go lets small businesses buy or finance a portable generator for $25,000 (and up) and store it at a secure facility in Tampa, Orlando or West Palm Beach. The company also does all the maintenance and guarantees fuel will be available at its storage sites. Power To Go also offers to rent our generators during non-emergency times (perhaps 30 to 40 days a year) and split the revenue 50-50 with owners. Typical rental fees start at $150 a day.

Some of Walker's competitors require a deposit to get on a waiting list after the next big storm. If no generators are available, you get your money back — though in the meantime you've given the company a big chunk of change interest-free and your business is still in the dark. Lesson: Shop around to be sure you're guaranteed a generator when you need it.

You'll also want to keep an eye on your company's most precious resource: your employees. In addition to providing a 24-hour emergency phone number, set up a general e-mail account that allows employees to check in. Note: In some cases, the text messaging feature on cell phones works even if the voice network is down.

Total price tag for your recovery plan? Depending on the size of your business and tolerance for risk, being prepared can cost from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands. Just don't let your fear of disaster whip you into a buying frenzy. "If you operate your business at ten sites, you don't need ten generators," says Walker. "Power outages are generally scattered so you'll probably be all right if you buy two or three generators and tow them to sites as needed."

"It's easy to over-buy when preparing for an emergency," says Tom Serio, Director of Business Continuity Management for Office Depot in Delray Beach, Fla. "You don't need five terabytes [of data storage] any more than you need the biggest, heaviest, most expensive piece of any type of equipment."

And just when you think you have everything in place, take one final important step. "Test your plan, even if it's a dry run sitting around a table," says Serio. "It will give you experience and highlight shortcomings. You'll realize that you can't do this or that because you don't have the right people or equipment in place or available in the proper sequence. All this will speed your recovery after a disaster."