Estimated reading time: 4 minutes, 57 seconds

Disaster Planning Tips from a Katrina Veteran

charles CoeIt will soon be five years since Charles Coe's accounting firm office in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans was left in a pile of rubble by Hurricane Katrina, whose effects are still seen in the barren landscape of the city's Ninth Ward. Coe learned a lot about dealing with doing business during a natural disaster. And asked about the lessons, he gave a list that omitted many of the usual cautions about disaster planning and recovery.

His list didn't include the usual advice about making sure data is backed up and that files can be restored, although those are still important. It had nothing to do with the kinds of servers and software that Coe & Co. had. The devastation was so widespread, it was an hour's drive to find gasoline or even to buy an Ethernet cable or another computer.

Coe & Co. specializes in technology, reselling Microsoft Dynamics GP, SL and CRM, Sage's MAS 90/200 and QuickBooks Enterprise Suite. It also offers  managed IT services and networking services. Fortunately, the firm had other offices than the one near the center of the devastation, including Houma and Baton Rouge, La., and Houston, Texas. But it still needed to communicate with these workers.

"At the time, being able to communicate with the group was our number one priority, although we didn’t know at the time," he says. And besides an emphasis on telecommunications that enabled the 19 staffers to stay in touch, the lessons included the importance of making some critical business decisions, not technology decisions during the emergency.

The first items on his list are the elements of communications, some of which proved surprisingly useful.

1. Media for Communicating with Your Team
A – Text messaging requires only small amounts of bandwidth and will get through if only a small period of connectivity occurs,

B – Skype (or another VoIP process which is not based on traditional phones) enable you to go to the coffee shop you are near and communicate.

C – Set up a Web site people can go to and communicate with (i.e. a Blog, with security if you really need it). This will allow people to post status updates (i.e. I’m in Florida) for everyone to see. It also becomes the place people can get an update from when they have time.

"We used text messaging right after the storm. We didn’t realize it was important as it was," he says.

With landlines down and cellular service was overwhelmed, Coe's employees found that if they typed a text message and hit "send", if they were driving within range of a cellular tower, a short text message would go through because it needed very little connection time. Also because its transmission was delayed, as opposed to trying to dial a call, which asks for an immediate connection and was impossible because of the volume of traffic, the text message could utilize those fast-moving connection opportunities.

So the text messages were used to inform employees to visit a blog where any members of the firm could post messages. "That let everybody know where everybody was. People could post their own updates," he says.

Skype was not used before the crisis. But the first incoming call that reached Coe was via Skype from a friend in Australia and he realized the value of having a VoIP system that's not dependent on the traditional telephone network.

However, it is the next two segments of suggestions that Coe departed from the usual discussion of disasters. And these involve business decisions and staffing uses, some of which may not come into play in disasters other than those involving natural phenomena whose impact spans a large geography

2 – Prioritize Clients
A.  Make a list of your important clients and contact them. Let them know you are ready to help.  
B. Let your team know which clients to focus on.

Triaging clients was not something Coe had thought about beforehand. But after the storm did its damage, employees made a list of all clients and identified the ones the firm could not afford to lose.

"It turned into an 80/20 exercise. We highlighted and communicated to everybody - these are the ones we must talk to - and gave their names to our people with the best way to contact them," Coe says. These were the clients who always paid bills. And given that contact from the firm, they continued paying, probably, says Coe, because so few services were being delivered by other organizations.

3 – Be lenient with staff.

A. My experience was that even some staff who did not come back for a month after Katrina were more loyal to us after then I expected.

B. Everyone had issues; so give people breathing room as far as work is concerned.  If you can pay them, you should. The investment paid off for us to continue paying people.

Many businesses didn't continue to pay employees and "We found loyalty was much higher than at higher other organizations," he says. But he's not sure he'd do it the same way again. He said he would probably have to decide on a case-by-case basis.

"Some people who stayed out longer did get docked for vacation time," he notes.

Bob Scott
Bob Scott has provided information to the tax and accounting community since 1991, first as technology editor of Accounting Today, and from 1997 through 2009 as editor of its sister publication, Accounting Technology. He is known throughout the industry for his depth of knowledge and for his high journalistic standards.  Scott has made frequent appearances as a speaker, moderator and panelist and events serving tax and accounting professionals. He  has a strong background in computer journalism as an editor with two former trade publications, Computer+Software News and MIS Week and spent several years with weekly and daily newspapers in Morris County New Jersey prior to that.  A graduate of Indiana University with a degree in journalism, Bob is a native of Madison, Ind
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