The speed and cost of recovery from disasters, whether natural (hurricanes, floods, fires, etc.) or man-made (terrorism), is in the preparation before anything happens. This preparedness is commonly known as emergency management. As Wayne Thomas, Vice President of International Homeland Security and Disaster Management for IEM, Inc. (a global security consulting firm specializing in homeland security and emergency management (www.iem.com)) puts it “Emergency management is about the cycle of dealing with disasters. Whether they are natural or man-made, disasters are going to happen. We have to make the strategic decisions to be ready for them. For hurricane (like Hurricane Sandy) statistics show that for every dollar invested in mitigation (disaster preparedness) $4 is saved.”

Unfortunately, not every community or business invests in disaster and business continuity planning. The emergency management and continuity planning cycle includes four key steps: preparation, response, recovery and mitigation.

Preparedness is step one. This means understanding what you need to protect people, infrastructure, data, inventory, and so on. In the event of a disaster—whether limited to your place of business or a widespread disaster like a hurricane—what does your organization need to do WHEN the disaster is about to occur or happens. Are your files backed up and accessible from a remote location? Where are your people to go, what are they to do, what are the priorities (the first always being prevention of loss of life) in the event of a disaster? Thinking through each scenario and identifying the who, what, when, where, how, how much, etc. enables you to protect your people and your business. This also means making sure you have the “paperwork,” like insurance policies with coverage for fire, flood (special insurance), earthquake, tornadoes, etc.

Preparing for disaster means understanding the risks and issues your particular business/organization will face AFTER the disaster. What if you are a small “mom and pop” and your customers are the locals within walking or driving distance of your business? What if your business is relatively unscathed physically and you can be up and running on day one after the hurricane, but your customers have been wiped out (no transportation, no electricity, no jobs)? What will you do? Planning for disaster may be the make or break for your business. That planning also means knowing what your community, town, state, and federal disaster plans are.

Response is the immediate action you take during and after a disaster (working from your pre-existing plan). Prevent negative consequences by following your plan and understanding the priorities when disaster hits, with saving lives being first and foremost. Who is in peril, injured, and in need of medical or other immediate intervention? Take steps to make the response of first responders (fire, police, medical, etc.) easier know what you and your people are supposed to do, e.g., report to work or stay home decision criteria, where to report, physical versus virtual alternatives.

Recovery from disaster often overlaps the response phase. After the survivors and victims, clean-up and rebuilding begins. It may take a few days, months, or years. Returning to “what was” may or may not be possible. In the recovery phase the critical issues of power, transportation, communication—major infrastructure—must be restored safely, wisely and with priorities established by public/private oversight such as FEMA, state and local emergency management, and private sector groups like power and communication companies.

Mitigation brings you full circle in the process: What do you need to do in the aftermath of the current disaster so that the next disaster the least possible impact? These decisions for your community, the economy, individual businesses and the business community as a whole require the public and private sectors to work hand in hand in to decide what investment will be made and what new infrastructure, policies and procedures will be put in place. When disaster strikes, it is critical to not simply return to the former status quo, but look to the future and how to modernize, adapt from lessons learned, and improve on infrastructure better designs (e.g., Hurricane Katrina taught the lesson of elevating structures in low-lying areas). From disaster can come great opportunity to advance the state of technology and to replace the crumbling and destroyed infrastructure.

Businesses and communities must answer critical questions in the rebuilding process: where to rebuild, what to rebuild, what technology can be used. Strategic and common sense decisions need to be made about key infrastructure locations: where to locate power plants, hospitals, schools, etc. And one of the most difficult questions must be answered: Does it make sense to change building codes and prevent rebuilding in some areas?

In the aftermath of disaster we can rebuild and grow stronger. But the reality is not everything will come back; not everything and everyone will have the capacity to rebuild. Louisiana, according to a SCORE report, lost 18,000 businesses in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. I would surmise that the list consisted of businesses that did not have a recovery plan or resources, those that lost their customer base, the uninsured, and those that had to relocate due to the scope of destruction and the lack of infrastructure to support their operations.

Rebuilding communities and economies takes time. In some instances returning to “normal” levels of economic prosperity and / or population density may take generations. The priority in the immediate aftermath of disaster is to get up and running. The long-term priority is to mitigate future disaster through strategic investment in systems, technology, and facilities. Disaster WILL come. Are you prepared?

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