For Small Businesses, Disaster Recovery Can Be Emotionally Taxing

April 24, 2009

When a fire destroyed the Manhattan office of Atlantis Health Plan, the company was so well prepared it lost just one day of work. But that didn’t make disaster recovery easy.

Small business owners who contend with disasters find that the recovery process involves much more than finding space and getting Internet and phone service again. Relocation and disruptions in a company’s routine can take an emotional and physical toll that’s as hard as the disaster itself. Owners and employees can feel pushed to extremes.

An early morning electrical fire Nov. 25 wiped out everything in Atlantis’ 10,000 square feet of space, Chief Operating Officer Tom Dwyer said.

“It was basically a complete loss,” Dwyer said.

Their data loss was zero because Atlantis, a health insurance company, uses a Web-enabled software application hosted in Houston.

The company also had a relocation plan, having already contracted to use space in Carlstadt, N.J., near New York, that had phones and computers. The result of all this advance planning was just one missed day of work.

“By 9 a.m. on the 26th, we were back up,” Dwyer said.

But there were still plenty of problems. While the main phone number was quickly switched to the New Jersey location, secondary numbers such as fax lines took as long as several weeks to be moved.

At first, it was easy for the staff to adapt. “There’s an adrenaline rush because it’s new, exciting, different, making calls on the fly, going by the seat of your pants,” Dwyer said.

But, he said, “after a few weeks, it settles down, you get back to your routine, and everyone realizes it’s a longer work day and longer commute for our folks. It starts to sink in.”

Atlantis rented a bus to take the staff to work, but Dwyer noted that workers were having to start their work day at 7:30 a.m. during the holiday season. “It was a challenge on our managers’ part, keeping the morale up.”

The company expects to move into new quarters soon, in a building near their original location.

Jocelyn Wiebe and her husband Ryan are also in the midst of disaster recovery right now. The couple had separate businesses in brand-new offices in Oostburg, Wis., between Milwaukee and Green Bay, and were dislocated after a Jan. 9 arson fire in the office next to theirs.

Although their office had only minor fire damage in addition to damage from smoke and water, it had to be gutted. Jocelyn, a sales representative for health insurer AmeriPlan, is working mostly out of her home office while Ryan, who has a new financial services company, is in temporary space. But Wiebe estimated that he lost about a month of work while he had to get his business up to speed again, including getting phone and Internet service.

Neither lost any data. Jocelyln had taken her laptop, and therefore all her client information, home with her. Her husband’s work was stored entirely on his PC in the office, but it was luckily rescued by officials soon after the fire and not damaged.

They’re hoping to be back in their offices soon. First, they need to go through all their furniture and equipment, which has been stored in a trailer, see how much of it is salvageable, and then clean it.

Jocelyn isn’t looking forward to wiping ash and soot off everything. And, she said, “everything reeks” of smoke.

Paul Lewis found himself pushed to the limit at times after nine feet of snow collapsed part of the roof of the Warren, N.J., building that housed his firm in January 1996.

Lewis’ computer networking company was one of several tenants. His offices were unscathed, but the building was condemned, he wasn’t allowed in and the server he needed to run the business was locked inside. So, nearly three weeks after the collapse, Lewis staged a “midnight raid,” breaking in to get the server.

Lewis said his company couldn’t have survived otherwise. In 1996, the technology that allows companies to back up their data remotely or on the Internet was in an embryonic stage. Backing up data often meant copying files to floppy disks placed right next to the PC.

Lewis also had to recreate the company in a temporary location and with none of the equipment and conveniences he and his staff relied on. Friends came to his aid, lending him computer and phone networks, but that meant everyone had to learn a new way to work.

During the six months that it took for Lewis’ business to get back to its premises, Lewis said he was often in tears on the way to work, and “a month into it, I was really considering throwing in the towel.”

But, he said, “I realized that my employees, everyone was going through this stressful, high anxiety period and I realized the best thing for me to do was put a smile on my face and say, ‘we’re going to get through this,”‘ he said.

They did. One benefit of the disaster was that Lewis was able, in a different setting, to see that his company needed to be restructured; after he did that, it was stronger. Lewis sold it three years later, and now owns a computer forensics and security operation in Asbury, N.J.

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