Now That the Disaster Has Moved On, What's Next?

NEWS ANALYSIS: Once again, a series of disasters reminds us that for your business to survive a disaster, it must plan first, then execute that plan afterward.

Verizon_Hurricane Michael_2

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder could have easily been talking about today’s disasters when he wrote the now famous phrase: “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” When he wrote that, von Moltke was writing about the battle plans of the Prussian military in 1880, but the advice is timeless. More important, it’s just as true for disaster plans as it is for the battle plans with which von Moltke was working.

What von Moltke was trying to get across is the need for careful planning and the need to allow flexibility to be part of the plan. When it comes to disaster plans, the real flexibility needs to apply to the aftermath, which is when all the really hard work begins.

When Hurricane Michael hit Florida on Oct. 10 and then moved on to Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia, businesses in its path had little time to prepare. The storm went from being a tropical storm near Cuba to reaching near-category 5 in just two days. Businesses that weren’t already prepared basically had time to evacuate and little else.

Once the storm moved away from the impact areas, there was little left. Businesses in and around Panama City and Mexico Beach, Fla., were simply gone. Also gone were normal means of communications. Emergency services had some communications, but cell service and landlines were out, as were television and radio stations. There was no internet service. Communities along the Florida Panhandle were isolated.

Ham Radio: The Only Live Channel

If you were in the area, the only way you could alert the world that you survived was through ham radio, which, as always in the case of major disasters, was up and running immediately, providing health and welfare messaging, summoning assistance and alerting the world to conditions.

If you were trying to recover your business, your only option was a satellite phone. If you had one, then you could communicate beyond the disaster zone. If you didn’t, then you and your business were out of luck.

T-Mobile crew gets to work following Hurrican Michael.

And what about your business? If you’d planned ahead, you had your business data stored out of harm’s way, perhaps in a cloud location far from the disaster. Your other needs for restoring your business include rebuilding your facilities and getting your employees back to work. With those requirements in mind, here are the basic steps you need to plan for recovering from a disaster.

  • First, remember that your employees are your most important concern. As soon as the winds die down or the smoke clears or the ground has stabilized, start ascertaining the health and welfare of your employees. Do what you can to help them, knowing that they can’t help you until their families are safe.
  • Next, try to find out the condition of your facilities. This may take some doing, depending on the nature of the disaster. But if your office or factory is intact, you have a different set of problems than you’d have if they were destroyed.
  • While you’re doing that, try to determine the health of your communications. You already know that cell phones will be out, but landlines may be operational. Likewise, your internet connection may be fine once power is restored. If you have backup power, it may already be running.
  • If your facilities were destroyed or badly damaged, this is when you start looking for an alternate location where you can operate your business until you can restore normal operations. This is where that satellite phone I mentioned above will become a necessity, at least until the wireless companies begin restoring service.
  • Once cell service starts being restored, you probably won’t be able to make calls, but you can send text messages. This is when you reach out to your leadership and start making plans to get the business up and running.
  • Once you have an alternate location, it’s time to start assembling your employees at the new site. Then you’ll see if your cloud service contains the information you need and if your disaster recovery contractor can do what it promised. Of course, you’ll have practiced this, so you should have some idea.
  • Finally, it’s time to attempt to resume operations. This will lead to a thousand little things that you hadn’t thought of, but which need to be done, until you’re actually able to get up and running.
  • Now, once something like business operations have resumed, you need to remember about the first point. Your employees will probably still be struggling to cope with the loss of their homes, the interruption of their lives and possibly the loss of their loved ones. It’s critical that you support them while they deal with this.

You’ll notice that this is not a detailed plan. This is because every company is different and every disaster is different. To create a detailed recovery plan that must be followed belies the reality outlined by von Moltke. Such a plan would never survive the reality of the disaster.

Instead, you need to know the broad outlines, and you need to know how to invoke specific recovery efforts, but you also need enough flexibility to operate within the constraints of the disaster as it is, not as you thought it might be.

So you need to make a plan, you need to detail the contingencies as thoroughly as possible, and then you need to be prepared to innovate when your plan doesn’t match reality.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...