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Two short weeks ago, the 2016 hurricane season officially began, although the first hurricane of 2016 actually occurred in January. This year the hurricane forecasters anticipate 14 named storms, 8 hurricanes, and 4 major hurricanes. 4 hurricanes are expected to make landfall in the United States. Do you live in Colorado, North Dakota or Iowa or some other place where hurricanes never, ever pose problems? Great! What about droughts earthquakes, extreme heat or cold, floods, landslides, lightning, thunderstorms, tornadoes, tsunamis, volcanoes, wildfires, or solar flares (now called space weather) causing blackouts and interruptions in communications? What about a structure fire, broken water pipe or terrorism?

Recently, I encountered a real-life, albeit a small scale disaster. Two employees at a local shop arrived at the store on Saturday morning to find the floor wet and all the POS equipment shorted-out. It seems that a water pipe had burst in the ceiling of the business next door and the water drained into this shop. The shop was forced to close both Saturday and Sunday, their best sales days. I asked a manager / friend what they would have done if that had occurred during an upcoming major event. The response was, “It can’t. I don’t know what we’d do.”

That is why you need a plan, and perhaps, some sales ticket books and pens set aside with notations of what is needed to properly enter sales transactions into the POS system later should such a thing happen in your store. A disaster doesn’t have to affect thousands to be tragic for a small business. Therefore, prepare for emergencies before they happen. Have a written emergency plan and set aside the tools to make the plan work. Do not commit the plan to your memory—it may be your day off, you and your staff may not be thinking clearly under stress or you could be the emergency. Planning has an extra reward—besides helping you prepare, it helps you think of other situations and how to solve them. Review the plan with employees so they what to do and where the plan is kept.

Rather than go through the lengthy list of things you should have in your emergency kit, consider some of the newest additions. Everyone knows to have an ample supply of flash lights, batteries and drinking water as well as a first aid kit. New items to include are: a whistle—it takes less breath to blow a whistle than to call out and it is easier for rescuers to locate following a tornado or earthquake; a roll or two of fluorescent tape (not expensive and available at auto supply stores in 8 – 10 foot lengths) to mark unsafe structures or to make a message on a building when communication systems fail; and tightly-woven, natural-fiber fabric to breathe through in the event of smoke or airborne toxins.

Other things to consider are critical business data that will be needed to continue as a viable business. 94% of small businesses say they “back up” critical financial data but only 40% store the back up off site. Also, many businesses use the same media (like a read / write disk) for back–up, sometimes using the same disk for years, and never verifying that the back up is good. Also, when important records are backed up to a media format such as a disk, practice restoring a file from every back up to verify that the media (disk, hard drive, etc.)  is still in good working order. You do not want to learn that your external hard drive or read/write disk has failed when you are trying to restore a backup following some disaster. Back up copies of critical records including financial accounting and employee data, customer lists and inventory lists and store the back up off site or use a cloud based service.

The IRS and other security experts do recommend storing back ups away from the business. Earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes can displace large areas of real estate. Even if you perform regular back ups faithfully, these calamities may result in permanent data loss if the back ups are stored on-site. Best bet is a bank vault. Some security experts recommend storage 50 miles from the store; others simply specify “off-site.” Some recommend cloud storage over any media back up. The most important suggestion is to perform regular back ups and store them at a safe place other than the business.

Other considerations may include communication with your employees at a time when cell towers and phone lines are down. While the situation won’t last long, if you are depending on employees to show up at the store ready to work, you may need to contact your employees while communication systems leave much to be desired. Decide what type of communication will be best for your particular location.

As a side note with communication, during a disaster, 911 calls are so numerous that the system processing those calls may fail. It is imperative that you have posted the non-emergency contact information for the police, fire fighters and ambulance service. It may be the only way to reach them. Also write down the US postal address for your store and the location address. Be very exact. And while I know that you know that your store is on the south west corner of Main Blvd. just before State Street, during an actual emergency, you may be too rattled to think clearly. Write down the store location and address with the emergency phone numbers so you and your employees can simply read the directions without thought.

While researching this topic, I found information on terrorist attacks as well. Some malls now have very detailed plans to help ensure the safety of customers and employees during a variety of terrorist attacks including explosions and airborne toxins. These plans cover the steps necessary to filter air supply, seal off ventilation systems and the safest areas in the malls for survival. It is sad to say, but life has come to a point where even shopping at the local mall may involve designating a meeting place for family members to assemble following an attack.

If you know a disaster, such as a hurricane, may strike, preparation may be possible, but be honest—you will never be as prepared as you “planned” if you don’t have a plan. The down side of any disaster, even a small one, is lost or delayed sales and income, increased expenses, contractual penalties, customer dissatisfaction, staff changes not to mention structural damage. Sometimes just spending time thinking about what you may need to do when you are calm will help you work out other problems that you may encounter. Then a broken water pipe may become an inconvenience rather than a calamity of dire proportions.