Washington Chapter

25 Years in the Disaster Recovery Business

Published March 24, 2015
I can’t believe it has been 25 years since I started in the disaster recovery business with Comdisco, a computer leasing and disaster recovery services provider. What a change I have seen over the years. When looking back on my career, there were three major events that stood out to me as turning points for this industry – September 11, Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy.

September 11th

Before September 11, disaster recovery used to be strictly an IT issue, ensuring data was backed up and could be restored in the event of an interruption. No one ever thought about the “people” aspect of recovery until September 11. This disaster was one of the most difficult and heart wrenching events I’ve had to deal with. I was in tears with many of those I helped recover.

September 11 brought about many changes within the industry:

  1. Backup data is only as good as the location where you store it. Before September 11, many companies stored their data onsite. When that location was compromised, they lost everything. Today, most organizations backup data in an alternate, off-site location.
  2. People. People. People. No one put much consideration into where employees would work if your office was inaccessible. While most plans involved having data accessible, they still lacked a key component: a place for your staff to access and use that data. The take-away here was to determine which employees were the most critical during an interruption and then plan for an alternate worksite in order to continue operations.

September 11 was an eye-opening event on many levels. It seems silly to say now, but a terrorist attack was never considered in terms of a business continuity plan. No one ever thought a tragedy of this scale would occur. September 11 forced everyone to rethink their definition of continuity planning and made us all put “people” first.

Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina was the next major event that had a ripple effect throughout all industries. Unfortunately though, it seemed as though lessons learned from September 11 were not applied by the majority of businesses. Although this disaster was predicted, many didn’t heed the warnings and prepare properly. And like September 11, most organizations stored their backup data locally, in New Orleans, and were not able to access it due to the flooding, power outages and communication lines that were severed.

Communications with employees was also a major issue. Not only did organizations not prepare for staffing challenges, but they lost the ability to communicate with them in the days and weeks after the storm.

Hurricane Katrina brought about several major realizations after the storm:

  1. You cannot rely only on modern technology. During the storm, cellphone towers were destroyed and too many organizations did not have an emergency plan in place to ensure staff could communicate at a time of disaster. Going forward:
    1. Everyone should have a backup communication plan with alternate carriers
    2. Texting should become a key piece of their communications strategy
    3. A “toll-free” call-in number should be established for staff to obtain status updates
    4. Social media should be utilized to communicate with staff, stakeholders and the community.
  2. Cash is king. The majority of credit and debit card readers were out of use and businesses posted signs that they were only accepting cash. People were not able to get supplies and employees were not able to return to work. Businesses now see the need to encourage their employees to set aside emergency cash and keep enough available internally for the business.

Unfortunately, many businesses never fully recovered from Hurricane Katrina and as a result, New Orleans is a much different city today than it was prior to this event.  However, Hurricane Katrina reinforced the need for businesses to store backup data in an alternate location and the pitfalls of relying on one type of communication method. Lastly, it brought up the need to keep enough cash on hand for emergencies.

Superstorm Sandy

The most recent major turning point for disaster recovery was Superstorm Sandy. When Sandy hit in October of 2012, it came with plenty of warning. However, like many disaster events, people waited until the last minute before taking action to prepare. Lower Manhattan flooded, leaving over 8 million people without power for weeks and inflicting severe property damage.

Superstorm Sandy brought about many changes within the industry:

  1. How are we going to get there? I remember a customer thanking me for getting him a generator, but asking if I had thoughts on how he was going to be able to get his employees to work. Over half of the region’s gas stations were knocked out during the storm and problems in the supply chain caused a crippling shortage. Lines as long as several miles formed and odd-even day rationing became mandatory in some counties. It’s apparent now that companies need to have plans in place to get their employees back to work either through carpooling, hiring a bus company or working with vendors to bring fuel to their site for the staff.
  2. Getting down to the wire. More than 8 million people were left without power during Sandy. Devices such as cell phones and laptops eventually died and were not able to be replenished. Therefore, work-from-home strategies were useless. Going forward, companies need to consider providing staff with either the ability to charge multiple devices through a car charging capability or consider solar based recharging options.

Many organizations are still recovering from Sandy, but the event taught us that work-from-home strategies will be compromised if you don’t have a back-up power plan in place and businesses must consider transportation alternatives so employees can return to work.

Disaster recovery has come a tremendous way over the past 25 years. I’m blessed to say that I’ve led a career that has allowed me to be a part of saving businesses. Unfortunately, I’ve seen firsthand how these horrible events impact people. But, I’ve also seen how each and every struggle provided us with lessons to create a better future for businesses going forward. I know that disaster recovery will always be a work in progress. It will continue to evolve as technology advances and businesses change, just like it has over the last 25 years. It has been an extremely rewarding industry to be a part of and I’m looking forward to seeing where the future will bring us.

To learn more about how Superstorm Sandy changed the industry, view our “Superstorm Sandy – Lessons Learned” whitepaper.