Disaster Struck, Now What? 5 Steps to Creating an Emergency Plan


When the seven-minute tornado from hell hit Joplin, Mo., on the evening of May 22, John Motazedi was hunkered down in his basement like the rest of the people in the area. When he went to investigate the damage to his office, Motazedi found his entire building flattened to its foundation. That got him thinking about the new office furniture he had delivered two days prior. “Not only did I never get to sit behind my new desk, I never even found a piece of it,” he said. “That was how bad our building got hit.”

Still, Motazedi, the CEO of seven-employee IT outsourcing company SNCSquared, had his business back up and running in less than 24 hours. “The tornado hit at 5:43 p.m., and we had ourselves back up and running by 2 p.m. the next day--100% of our clients were back up by Thursday at 5pm,” said Motazedi. “We had the equipment up before they had buildings to use them.”

How did Motazedi get his operations back up and running so quickly? The short answer: preparation and practice. Not only did he have a plan in place, but he practiced how he’d respond in just such a situation. “We even have a basement we use as a mock disaster recovery location.”

Many of the companies around Joplin that didn’t have an emergency plan in place are still struggling to get back on their feet, despite a great outpouring of support from the community, said Kirstie Smith, a spokesperson for the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce. To date, a business recovery fund established by the Chamber has raised more than $100,000, but Smith said much more is needed (to learn more and donate, log on to www.joplincc.com).

Post-disaster struggles like those experienced in Joplin are common in the event of a major disaster. “Probably 40% of businesses won’t reopen after [an event like the Joplin tornado],” said Bob Boyd, CEO of Charlotte-based Agility Recovery Solutions, a company that helps businesses plan for and recover from disasters of all kinds. “And another 60-70% won’t survive two years because they don’t have a disaster preparedness plan in place ahead of time.”

Most small business people don’t know how to start developing a plan, according to Boyd. Though it may seem overwhelming, there are free online resources available in addition to companies who help small business owners get a plan in place at a reasonable cost, said Boyd, whose company has partnered with the U.S. Small Business Administration on the Web site www.preparemybusiness.org, an online resource for companies who need help putting their emergency-preparedness plan in place.

According to Boyd and the SBA, there are five essential things for companies to do to prepare for a disaster before it strikes:

Step 1: Do a risk assessment. What are potential threats to your business because of your immediate environment? Are you on the 10th story of a 20-story building, or are you in your own single-floor facility? Do your neighbors work with chemicals? Knowing your environment is this first step, said Boyd, it helps prioritize the essential elements of your plan.

Step 2: Make a communication plan. “If you and I can find out what’s happening in Egypt during a revolution, then your employees can do the same thing,” said Boyd, who encourages businesses to use two-way communication tools like Facebook and Twitter to facilitate communication. And don’t expect phones to work, plan for text messages and other tactics that require less bandwidth.

Step 3: Do an assessment of your key partners and vendors. Do your vendors have a disaster plan in place? Who would be a backup to the important partners you work with? Set up a vendor number with alternate suppliers of components that are vital to your product, just in case. “If you don’t do it today, but try to make a decision when the problem hits, you’ll have a long delay,” said Boyd.

Step 4: Make sure you have strategies for working in another facility. “If you try to find a generator or new office space on the fly after the event, then everyone else will be chasing those same things,” said Boyd. If your company doesn’t have a secondary facility, seek out a friend’s business or another group in your business association that you can share resources with.

Step 5: Finally, practice the plan. Spend some time running through different variations of how a disaster could play out. “It’s not just about having a plan,” said Boyd. “It’s about practicing the plan and poking holes in it.” But Boyd cautioned, “don’t tie anyone’s salary or bonus to it, because the point is to find out where it fails.”

Of course, even with practice, it’s impossible to anticipate all elements of a disaster. “We had a plan for an alternate location, but that location was destroyed [in the Joplin tornado] too,” said Karen Thomas, president of Oxford Health Care, a home health company with more than 4,000 clients and 1,500 employees, including a large Joplin facility.

Thomas admitted that it can be overwhelming to begin putting together an emergency-preparedness plan, but she advises other businesspeople that any plan is better than no plan. “When people think about [making an emergency preparedness plan], they think, ‘how can you plan for every emergency?’ The answer is that you can’t. When an emergency happens, you’ll have to adapt, but if you have a plan in place, adapting will take minutes, versus hours or days trying to figure out what to do.”

A good example: since Thomas and Oxford had a plan in place before the tornado, they already knew how many square feet they’d need for future office space. They were able to secure a new lease for suitable office space less than a week after the tornado. “When other people were still trying to find clients and employees, we had a realtor on the ground on Monday trying to find us new space. Having that plan was key,” said Thomas.