NEW YORK - After Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, many small business owners around the country realized they could be vulnerable to the same kind of destruction that left thousands of companies paralyzed for weeks, months or even indefinitely.
Disaster preparedness is now more of a priority — but many of those who are implementing plans learn that the process has become more complicated post-Katrina. While backing up data and buying business interruption insurance are still critical, so, for example, are ensuring that employees can still communicate with one another despite a telecommunications outage, and so is choosing a remote work location that can accommodate most if not all of a company’s staff, and for an extended period of time.
Even Gulf Coast companies that had plans in place when Katrina struck found that their disaster prep wasn’t adequate.
‘‘It caught us off guard. We had backup tapes, phone call lists, the standard stuff — you think you’re prepared,’’ said James Zeller, senior network manager for the New Orleans law firm Chaffe McCall.
A problem the firm quickly encountered was a complete phone service outage — it expected that cell phones would work, but Zeller said any phone with a 504 area code was knocked out. It was impossible to contact many employees.
Another serious problem grew out of the fact that no one expected that Chaffe McCall would be unable to use its offices, which weren’t damaged but which had no access to utilities. Before the gravity of the disaster became known, the firm thought it could operate out of its Baton Rouge office, about 70 miles away, but after the storm hit, it was clear that the office was way too small to handle its more than 100 employees.
The firm’s solutions in developing new disaster preparedness is to buy prepaid cell phones that have area codes outside 504, and to be sure it knows exactly where its employees are evacuating to, and what phone numbers they can be reached at — for example, at a relative’s house. It plans to have plenty of space in remote locations to accommodate its staff, including a Houston office opened following Katrina.
Zeller said another lesson the firm learned was that backing up data wasn’t enough — while it had tapes with all its computer information, it didn’t have servers with applications that made the data accessible. That delayed the firm’s resumption of business.
Of course, it’s important to note that in a cataclysmic event that hits a wide area, disaster planning really can do only so much. Some retailers in New Orleans, for example, are back in business, but they’re struggling because relatively few of their customers have returned to the city.
Still, by preparing for as many scenarios as possible, a company can help its chances of surviving and getting back to work quickly.
VIACK Corp., a Tempe, Ariz.-based company that provides online meeting software, realized it needed to plan for disasters beyond the obvious storms.
‘‘With bird flu, pandemics and also the ever-present threat of terrorism and other natural disasters and with our work force distributed across the country, it would be impossible to sustain our business operations if something happened,’’ said Amy Fadida, a senior vice president at the Tempe, Ariz.-based firm.
So, in its planning for some kind of pandemic, the company has distributed kits to employees with masks and instructions on how to be prepared to remain in their homes if necessary for weeks or even months.
The company also considered some of the events surrounding last year’s hurricanes; for example, before Hurricane Rita struck, some residents evacuating the Houston area ran out of gasoline. ‘‘We took into account the need for reduced use of fuel and the increase in congestion of the highways,’’ Fadida said.
She said VIACK’s disaster preparedness relies heavily on telecommuting solutions to keep the business running should any kind of disaster strike.
Perhaps the biggest lesson of disasters from the past few years, including terror attacks, storms and fires, is to try to plan for all kinds of contingencies.
‘‘I don’t think it’s silly to be sitting in a board room discussing what to do if aliens attacked tomorrow,’’ Zeller said. ‘‘It’s far-fetched, but who would have thought on Sept. 10 that S ept. 11 was a possibility.’’