Small business is the cornerstone of the U.S. economy, with more than a quarter million small businesses accounting for millions of dollars in commerce each year. Unfortunately, countless businesses have closed in recent months because of natural disaster. Reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina three years ago, Hurricane Ike swept through Galveston, Texas, causing massive power outages, scattering employees within the state, and shutting down thriving businesses. While some businesses reopened weeks later many were unable to recover from the customer and revenue losses and remain closed today.

Disasters like Hurricane Ike illustrate the growing need for business continuity plans that effectively address how to run a business once information technology operations are disrupted, often making the difference between losing and recovering a company.

Protecting your assets

The most critical assets of any business are its employees and data. Therefore, any business continuity plan should address the safety and accessibility of each and determine how the business will continue to run amidst destroyed or damaged IT infrastructure, applications, and machines. However, it is critical that such a plan also include processes for employees that manage IT operations, otherwise the plan is rendered useless.

When the lights go out

During a natural disaster, electric supply powers are often the first sign of disruption -- and the costliest. A simple battery backup which connects to a Universal Serial Bus (USB) port can safeguard against the loss of customer lists, information about current projects, accounting ledgers, and other critical data at risk in the aftermath of any disaster. There are also hard drives that can plug into a USB port that automatically back up data. These measures can prove to be both reliable and inexpensive business continuity tools. In addition, laptop computers can be used to store and remove data during disasters, essentially serving as a mobile system running on a backup generator.

With the use of any business continuity tool, it is recommended that a business supply its data center with a backup power system with enough fuel to last at least a week. In the instance that the network is disrupted, businesses should use a dedicated backup network or remote server. However, backing up files is essential despite having a backup battery, and options including an off-site storage service or self storage (i.e. fireproof containers, fireproof cabinet, etc.) can aide in preventative measures. The after effects of a disaster -- power failures and surges -- are often the real calamity for businesses’ IT operations.

Employee roadmap to safety

While business continuity plans prevent data losses within IT infrastructure, applications, and machines, it is critical that the plan include processes for employees that manage IT operations. Once a business loses operational capabilities, employees can still resume IT operations at another location. However, it is important to note that moving to another location may be impossible or slightly delayed depending on the type of disaster. A hurricane or other disaster can render traffic impossible with employees facing limited access to roads and airports. The key is to maintain communication with employees so they can be directed to the backup facility based on their current location. In addition to a current contact list with several options to get in touch with every employee, an effective business continuity plan should include processes and scenarios for employees managing IT operations responsible for coordinating communication.

Practice makes perfect

When compiling a business continuity plan to run a company in the aftermath of a disaster, it’s important to include a budget with costs for alternative IT infrastructure, applications, machines, employee transportation, and new business sites. Business continuity plans, which should represent at least 20 percent of a company’s basic IT operating budget, should be tested at least once a year and updated to reflect business changes like mergers and acquisitions or divestitures.

In recent years, the damage experienced by businesses along the paths of hurricanes and other disasters reinforce the growing importance of having a business continuity plan at all times. Beyond running a business while IT operations are disrupted, a business continuity plan often makes the difference between losing and not losing a business. The key to recovering a business after a disaster is preparing and practicing the continuity plan.

Mike Gorsage is the National Technology Practice Leader for Tatum LLC. Tatum is the nation’s largest executive services firm, providing financial and technology leadership to businesses of any size.