Is your business prepared for a disaster?

It's a timely question in view of the immense flood devastation in states along the Mississippi River during and since the holidays. Recovery, relocation and rebuilding efforts will be ongoing there for months and will cost billions of dollars. Many businesses, large and small, are among the victims.

Natural disasters can strike anywhere at any time. They often arrive with little or no warning. They come in many forms--snowstorms, tornadoes, wildfires, earthquakes, floods, drought, temperature extremes and more. And let's not forget terrorism.

So, it's not a question of whether a major disaster will occur, but when.

Unfortunately, many business owners don't seem concerned. Only one in four companies with 300 or fewer employees have a disaster preparedness plan, according to a June 2015 survey of 500 business owners conducted by Harris Interactive for Nationwide Insurance.

Of those with 50 or fewer employees, only 18%--less than one in five--said they have such a plan. Worse, 38% said they don't believe having a plan is important (even though most have an evacuation plan at home). Almost half (44%) said they don't have access to an emergency generator. And 66% don't have business interruption insurance.

So it's worth asking again: Is your company prepared for a disaster?

Mine certainly is. We made the Inc. 500 list three times, and that's what the biggest and best small companies do. We have protocols in place for when major storms occur, an evacuation plan with staff trained to implement it, offsite redundant computer systems so we can operate even if our headquarters and operations centers are down--and we have proper insurance coverage.

When Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast in 2012, many of our offices were affected, and so were many of our clients, especially those in New Jersey and New York. Despite the fact that some of our offices were without power for weeks, our advisors and their teams were able to stay connected from home or at remote locations, so we were able to continue serving our clients when they needed us most. Even though members of our team were without power themselves, with several suffering severe damage to their homes, everyone's job still got done. Meanwhile, our Virginia headquarters stayed close in touch to ensure those people were safe and helped provide emergency supplies to community centers in the worst-hit areas. That's what a disaster management plan lets you do.

If you want to develop such a plan--and you should--the steps you'll adopt will vary based on the industry you're in, the size of your company, your geographical service area and other factors, but here are five basic guidelines:

1. Assess the risks to your business and your workers. Consider the potential for both natural and man-made hazards. You can conduct a basic assessment in-house or have consultants provide you with a more extensive evaluation. Start by considering what sort of disaster is most likely--it may be a tornado or hurricane, but probably not both, based on your geographical area. Also consider whether the work you do exposes you and your workers to biological or chemical hazards.

2. List your most vital needs and check each item off when you've protected them. Your checklist might include an evacuation route, an off-site gathering location for staff, emergency contact information for all employees, a store of emergency supplies and external data backups.

3. Train your employees. Employees need to know who is responsible for what tasks, the best techniques to protect themselves in various situations, the best way to exit the premises, where to meet and whom to contact in case of serious damage. Consider appointing a few people as emergency coordinators. Conduct occasional drills.

4. Keep essential documents safe. Records and intellectual property should be stored in a waterproof, fireproof and bombproof container. If it can be made easily accessible so you can carry it with you as you exit the building, all the better.

5. Be well insured. Talk to an insurance expert to make sure you have plenty of the right kind of coverage--such as flood and earthquake insurance, key-man coverage and business continuity insurance--to help your business recover from disaster as soon as possible. At least 25% of businesses that close after an event such as a flood never reopen, according to the National Flood Insurance Program.

Don't wait for the rain to buy an umbrella. Procrastination can kill your company. Find out what businesses similar to yours have done, and read the suggestions offered at sba.gov, the Small Business Administration website.

Without a viable plan, you might suffer far more than just losing some income. You might never recover at all.

Published on: Jan 19, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.