Despite the devastating impact of Hurricane Katrina last year, most small businesses remain unprepared for natural disasters in the months ahead, according to a new survey.

Of more than 500 small-business owners polled nationwide, 84% said they are not worried about storms, floods, earthquakes, or other natural catastrophes affecting their business within the next 12 months, according to the survey by Harris International for MasterCard.

Only a third reported being fully prepared, the survey showed.

Lacking the resources of larger firms, small businesses are particularly vulnerable to natural disasters, said Bruno Perrault, the head of MasterCard's small- and midsize business division.

"For smaller companies located in a disaster zone, when their location is impacted, it means their entire business is hit," Perrault said.

Perrault joined other corporate executives at a panel discussion during the Small Business Administration's annual expo earlier this month, focusing on the need for small businesses to make disaster preparedness part of their regular operations.

The panel capped National Small Business Week, which this year focused on the many businesses still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.

Since the hurricane, which struck the Gulf Coast in August 2005 and flooded most of New Orleans, there has been a "heightened sense of awareness" of disaster preparedness, Perrault said.

Still, Perrault said many business owners -- including several who participated in the panel -- were too wrapped up in daily business operations to worry about potential emergencies.

According to the SBA, the best time to prepare for a natural disaster is before it happens: "Be a little pessimistic now, and assume it can happen to you," the agency's newly revised disaster planning toolkit says. The National Hurricane Center's Hurricane Preparedness Week runs May 21-27.

The MasterCard study also included the following tips:

  • Keep copies of crucial documents in a safe, off-site location. Perrault said many Gulf Coast business owners kept copies of financial records at home, only to find them destroyed or inaccessible. Signing up for online banking can provide a way to access financial records remotely.
  • Maintain contact information for critical parties. This includes employees, suppliers, and customers.
  • Empower staff to keep the business running. Key employees must be able to move the business forward in your absence, Perrault said. This means designating signatories for emergency loans and expenses, and establishing computer systems that allow remote access.