Tom Petrocelli's take on technology. Tom is the author of the book "Data Protection and Information Lifecycle Management" and a natural technology curmudgeon. This blog represents only my own views and not those of my employer, Enterprise Strategy Group. Frankly, mine are more amusing.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Mother Nature 1, Small Business 0

I live near Buffalo New York. Last week we had a freak October snow storm. Now, before anyone starts with the usual jokes, keep in mind this was not the normal Buffalo snow. Since the storm was widely but poorly reported, it is understandable that most people have an incomplete understanding of the scope of the disaster. Having fallen off the news cycle in a day, it's also unlikely people will ever get the whole story unless you live here or know someone who does. That's sad because it is an excellent object lesson in disaster preparedness.

The Facts.

To give some context to the situation (and hopefully stop the snickering) here are the facts of the storm:

  • The last time it snowed this early here was in 1880. We expect a small sprinkling at the end of the month but not this much this early

  • According to NOAA, the average snowfall for Buffalo for October is 0.3 inches. This is averaged over 59 years. We got 23 inches in one night.

  • On October 13, 2006 over 400,000 homes were without power. A full week later, on the 20th, there were still over 32,000 people without power.

  • Costs for tree removal and damage for municipalities could top $135M. That doesn't include business losses and other economic factors, insurance losses, and repairs to homes.

  • Schools have been closed all week in many districts and some will still be closed into next week, nearly two weeks into the disaster situation

Now, it's not like Buffalo and Western New York are new to snow. We are usually prepared for anything. Not this though. What it tells you is that despite your best planning for known risks, there are any number of unknown risks that you can't anticipate.

The Impact.

Most large businesses were effected by the storm because their employees couldn't get to work. Streets were blocked, there were driving bans in most municipalities, and folks had families to worry about. Small businesses, on the other hand, suffered because they had no power. My office was offline for an entire week. After six days I was able to get a generator to run my computers. Power came back after seven days and I was up and running.

As an aside, the latest joke running around Western New York goes like this:

Q. What's the best way to get your power back
A. Get a generator

Pretty sad, eh?

The Lesson.

What this experience underlines is the need for disaster planning by even the smallest of businesses. I know a great number of lawyers, doctors, dentists, and accountants that could not operate or operate effectively because they had no electricity. Computers did not operate and cell phones ran out of juice quickly. A common problem: cordless phones that don't operate at all without power.While large businesses will have gas fired generators that can operate nearly indefinitely, most small businesses have no alternate source of energy.

The situation also shows the dark underbelly of computer technology. Without juice, computers are inert hunks of metal and plastic, more useful as door stops than productivity tools. Even worse is having your critical data locked up in a device that you can't turn on. There were quite a few times when I found myself wishing for my old fashioned paper date book.

So what should the small business professional do? There are some actions or products that I'm considering or that saved my bacon. Here's my top tips:

  1. Get a small generator. A 2000-watt generator can be had for $250.00. A computer will need anywhere from 150 watts to 600 watts depending on the type of power supply. Laptops use even less. For the average small business professional, a 2000-watt generator will allow you to work at some level.

  2. Offline backup. My data was well protected - for the most part. However, as it got colder I began to worry that some of my disk-based on-line backup might be damaged. Thankfully it wasn't. Still it is clear to me that I need to get my data offsite. Burning DVDs or taking tapes offsite is not practical. So, I'm looking into offsite, online backup

  3. Extra cell phone batteries. The truth is, I mostly use my cell phone when traveling and can usually recharge it regularly. That works great when you have juice. An extra battery might make the difference between being operational and losing business. Some people used car chargers, many for the first time, to power up dead cell phone batteries.

  4. Network-based communication services. One of the best things I did was get a VoIP system. It obviously wasn't working with the power out but the network was. That meant I never lost my voice mail. I could also get into the voice mail to change it. Small, onsite PBXs or answering machines don't work once the lights go out. Also, keep an old-fashioned analog phone handy. These work off of a landline's own 5-volt power. In many instances, folks had viable phone connections but no analog phone to hook up to it.

  5. Duct tape. It works for everything. No, really.

  6. Give help, ask for help. Buffalo is the kind of community where everyone helps everyone else out. That's how I got a generator. Others I spoke with were operating out of other people's offices. Keep a list of you friends and colleagues who can help you. Be prepared to help them too. That's right on so many levels

The last tip is the most important. Technology will never have the power that people do. Over the past week I saw more signs of that then I ever thought possible. I know people who had their neighbors stay with them for over a week because they somehow had heat. I saw generators loaned like library books. On my block I encountered a group of high school students - cleaning out driveways so people could get out to the street.

That's right, roving bands of teenagers committing random acts of kindness. If this is what the world is coming to then I'm all for it. And like the Boy Scouts say "be prepared".

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