An Odd Week on the East Coast

Carl Weinschenk
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Five Disaster Recovery Tips for Businesses

New tips that can help businesses protect their data and recover quickly from disasters.

It's an odd week on the East Coast, to say the least. On Aug. 23, a medium-power, but expansive, earthquake shook the seaboard. Much of the same territory, as of Aug. 25, is in the path of Hurricane Irene.

These two events have a couple of things in common, besides the obvious fact that they are natural events. They are the first major events to occur after it became obvious that the federal government is revisiting and radically downsizing the financial help it provides to impacted areas. The other thread between the two events is that they both occurred outside of the regions where they are common. The East Coast sits on fault lines, but they are largely inactive. The mid-Atlantic states and New England get plenty of ice and snow, but rarely hurricanes.

The financial issues are vital. This post at Talking Points Memo illustrates the new thinking in Washington.

James Lee Witt and Admiral James M. Loy, co-chairs of Protecting America, wrote a post at the political site The Hill that addresses the reduction in funding and proposes a response that may be helpful in the future. First, they point out the problem caused by The Budget Control Act of 2011 in stark terms:

Over the next 10 years, the Office of Management and Budget projects that future disaster recovery costs requiring federal assistance for relief and reconstruction will total $225 billion. However, the recently enacted cap will limit federal disaster relief expenditures to roughly one-fourth of that amount.

The organization proposes a private fund that would be supported by insurance companies and administered by the government. In other words, much of the funding formerly provided by the feds would be replaced by the private sector. The emphasis also will be on "pre-funded mitigation measures" that could reduce the costs of emergencies when they do occur.

That's in the future. This week, the East Coast is dealing with the two anomalous natural events.

The first thing to think about is infrastructure. Structures in earthquake zones are built to different standards than those where such events aren't common. Thankfully - outside of a few cracks in the Washington Monument - the temblor wasn't strong enough to cause serious damage. It should be a seismic wakeup call, however. Likewise, structures in the Northeast aren't necessarily hurricane-ready. There also tend to be many brittle old trees that haven't been winnowed out by hurricanes over the decades. This may exacerbate problems that occur.

This quote - Al Berman, the executive director of the Disaster Recovery Institute International in a Computerworld story by Lucas Mearian - discusses the earthquake in context:

"We saw some telephone lines go down. Fortunately, we didn't see gas lines go down because, just like in Japan, it's infrastructure that causes the most problems," he said. "It's especially an issue in the Northeast. There are pipes in New York City that date back to the Civil War."

There are few absolutes in telecommunications. But one is that it's not a good sign if infrastructure created decades before the invention of the tape recorder, color photography or the horseless carriage enters the discussion.

Data center preparation is a related and vital concern. Here is what Beth Bacheldor says at IT World:

Data center facilities in hurricane zones should be already hardened -- the buildings should be equipped with hurricane shields for all windows and doors, there should be pumping equipment to combat flooding as well as independent power systems. Potable water and other necessary supplies need to be stockpiled. Of course, businesses should also have comprehensive disaster recovery plans.

The problem, of course, is that New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and the rest aren't in hurricane zones. The question, then, is how many of these preparations have been taken. A logical guess? Few.

Disaster recovery/business continuity is an odd thing. Organizations can prepare by doing such things as decentralizing operations, running drills, developing comprehensive physical and logical communications structures (i.e., who calls whom) and running highly redundant systems. But they can't prepare for the actual event because they simply don't know what it will be.

After all, who would guess that the Eastern seaboard would have an earthquake and a hurricane in the same week? The best thing to do is to take the steps that can be taken and, just as importantly, create a culture that expects business to not always be business as usual.

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