How worried are you?


Recent events in Japan have caused some businesses to worry
about whether they are prepared to keep operating after a major earthquake,
especially since the greater Seattle area is situated on the Cascadia fault.

Given the economic climate, disaster preparedness is often
the last thing on an executive’s mind these days, but creating a plan can save
your business. It cuts the number of decisions you have to make during the
disaster, reduces your legal liability and can safeguard your business brand
and reputation. Absence of a plan could include your business among the 25
percent of companies that fail after a disaster, usually because they had no

Having worked these issues by managing problems caused by
hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires and winter storms at Washington Mutual for
seven years, I’ve devised some questions you might use to test your
preparedness strategy.

1. Which of
your business functions are most critical and which can be suspended during a
disaster? 2. Are there streamlined emergency response plans that can be

Which of your critical business functions are handled for you by vendors? What
types of backup plans do those vendors have to keep your business up and
running? At WaMu, we made sure that our third-party courier companies had good
backup plans, since we depended upon them to move our cash around the country.
Our branches could not operate without cash, and we knew that dispensing cash
was a critical business function.

Once you have such business priorities identified, which parts of your business
can be run manually, without technology’s assistance, if power is not
available? Can you invoice customers? Can you pay bills? Can you supplement
your existing inventory? Can you deliver goods to customers? Have employees
been trained to step in and do more than one job? 

Does your business already have phone trees with employee contact information
so you can pass along vital information and ascertain employees’ safety? 

Assuming that power is available outside the affected area, do you have
alternate data centers from which you can operate in case your primary data
center was damaged in the earthquake? If not, have you considered storing data
in an internet cloud so it is available from home or office via a secure
internet connection?

Have you identified and rehearsed employees on locations in your buildings
where they can “duck/cover/hold” while the earthquake is taking place? 

8. If you
are a larger company, do you have sufficient diesel fuel to power the
generators you will use to keep on working?

From this list you can see there are a number of ways to
anticipate issues and not all of them are expensive. Sharing your plans with
employees is vital so that they know what their roles will be in an emergency.
And communicating with both customers and employees becomes even more important
in the midst of an earthquake. In this situation, both email and social media
tools come in handy. There is no way to communicate too much in a disaster,
especially to lead your people and reinforce key points for your company.

Finally, if you’re the CEO, be prepared to be vilified in the
press if you don’t move quickly enough and if you don’t communicate clearly.
You’re paid to do everything possible and to think outside the box so that your
company does not end up with a black eye. Given the lives and resources at
stake, having a plan is the least you can do now to reduce your risk after a
natural disaster ... or two or three disasters, as we have just seen in Japan.

Annie Searle is
founder of Annie Searle & Associates (, an independent
consulting firm that works with clients to identify program gaps and to manage
risks. Searle, a former executive at Washington Mutual, served for seven years
as chair of the bank’s crisis management team.

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