The catastrophe that Hurricane Katrina wreaked on New Orleans and the surrounding Gulf Coast last week should give us all a new appreciation for the many modern services we take for granted.
The immediate response must be to care for the victims and rebuild whatever can be replaced. But, after the debris has been cleared away and the area has returned to a semblance of normalcy, our thoughts should turn to ways of reducing the impacts when future disasters strike.
Could your business, whether it is large or small, continue to exist if electrical power was lost for a few days? How about a few weeks?
Power Breakdowns May Not Be Short
Most interruptions in electricity, natural gas, and other power sources aren’t as severe as the complete breakdown that hammered New Orleans. With much of that city’s infrastructure under water, estimates of when power would be restored ranged widely, from as short as two weeks to as long as two months or more.
That doesn’t mean a future disruption to your business’s power supplies would always be brief, however. In some cases, electricity has been unavailable to wide areas for much more than an hour or two:
• Millions of customers in the northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada were without electricity for about a day and a half in August 2003 after a fault in Ohio cascaded through the region’s power grid.
• Residents in southeast Michigan went without electrical service for several days at a time this summer due to problems at the Detroit Edison utility, according to the Detroit Free Press.
• Auckland, New Zealand, suffered a five-week loss of power to one-fourth of its downtown area in 1998, forcing more than 60,000 workers to relocate to temporary offices as far away as Australia.
In a January 2004 survey of U.S. small businesses, 80 percent said they’d experienced at least one power outage in 2003, with about one in four reporting three or more outages, according to a PDF report by Emerson Electric Co., a maker of power equipment. About 29 percent of those who had suffered power outages were dark for at least eight hours, while about 19 percent went without power for at least 16 hours.
Plan Now Or Forever Hold Your Peace
In case of a long power outage, some of your employees might be able to keep working on laptop computers, using the machine’s internal batteries. But that would only last for three to four hours in most cases. And working in a dark, unheated office might not be very productive.
Small UPS (uninterruptible power supply) units don’t offer much hope, either. Consumer-grade UPSes usually provide backup power for only an hour or even just a few minutes.
If your business would suffer serious consequences from a power outage, therefore, you have only a few alternatives that can meet your needs:
• Generate your own power, using onsite generators driven by supplies of gasoline or other fuels; or
• Move your employees to a location where you’ve arranged for power, computers, and other essential services.
The latter strategy was used in one of the biggest success stories of this week’s Gulf Coast disaster. The Times-Picayune — New Orleans’s major daily, with a normal circulation of 270,000 — was able to return to publishing a reduced print edition of 50,000 only three days after its offices were flooded. Editors and reporters were offered space at the nearby Houma Courier and Louisiana State University, according to the newspaper’s Web site.
In the event of a major natural disaster, of course, your business might not be so lucky as to find shelter with a well-equipped local competitor. Your company is more likely to survive if you plan now for the generation or alternate-location resources you might need.
The unexpected can never be predicted, of course. But even a major disruption of services doesn’t have to mean that your company’s balance sheet will be under water.