In Michigan, Hell really does freeze over. (The unincorporated community just north of Ann Arbor has a population of 266 and, like much of the Midwest, has experienced below freezing temperatures for months.) But this year, winter storms have given many parts of the United States a taste of what Hell is like, battering the Atlantic Coast and southeastern states with heavy winds, ice and snow.
Not surprisingly, economists are predicting significantly lower overall growth estimates for the January-March quarter. While tropical storms floods and droughts get the most press, winter storms cause significant harm. According to the U.S. Billion Dollar Weather and Climate Disaster time series from 1980 to 2011, which documents the number of annual events exceeding $1 billion in direct damages, winter storms during that period were responsible for $29.3 billion in damages. Look for those numbers to be even higher for the 2013-2014 winter season.
It’s one thing for harsh weather to keep shoppers and workers at home, close down schools, destroy crops and bring traffic to a standstill. But in areas where overhead power lines are common ─ which is much of the country, ice, snow and heavy winds have also made power outages rampant. Businesses aren’t just suffering because employees can’t get to work and goods can’t get produced and sold. Many have had their entire operations disrupted because of lost or inaccessible data resulting from downed power lines.
There’s also the threat of unexpected snow accumulation, which can bring roofs down. Ice dams cause their share of damage as well. (Ice dams occur when ice builds up on the edges of a roof, blocking snow and water from sliding off the roof. Instead, the moisture trickles down behind the shingles and causes leaks.)
Despite the evidence that winter storms, just like hurricanes, storm surges, floods, wildfires and other natural disasters, can be disastrous to businesses, many organizations continue to hedge their bets and avoid putting disaster recovery (DR) plans in place. Even for those that have DR plans, many have not taken into account the role of severe winter weather. With ice storms and other winter maladies plaguing the country from Maine to Texas, it’s increasingly clear that DR plans need to be “winterized.”
The Employee Factor
How do you winterize DR? Companies based in the northern tier and Midwest know that they need to take into account that there will be days that employees may not be able to get into the office due to hazardous driving conditions. Organizations in other areas of the country should also plan for “off” days as well, keeping in mind that unexpected ice storms, floods and other related seasonal disasters could potentially prevent employees from getting to work.
Telecommuting options, at least for key personnel, can help make sure critical business functions still are covered when employees can’t get to your facility. Equip them with the necessary equipment. Your IT department or consultants can help you determine the most secure, cost-effective methods for remote access. Make sure to frequently test connections and processes so that if a disaster strikes, everything is set to go.
If sensitive data is involved, it may be necessary to limit what information these employees can access. Consider implementing a policy that restricts remote employee access only to the data deemed absolutely necessary to each employee’s job. Advanced security technologies and training should also be employed to help protect data from intentional or unintentional insider breaches. If your company has a BYOD policy, chances are you have most of these covered. If not, now is the time to re-look at your BYOD policy and integrate it into your DR plan.
You’ll also want to have a communications plan in place that helps off-site employees communicate with one another and with customers.
For some companies, 24-hour-a-day on-site operations are a must. Make sure that you have on-site accommodations for employees who may have to remain at your facility during severe weather, including sleeping and showering facilities, food and fresh water. If that’s not possible, have a plan that allows key employees to stay at local hotels (within walking distance since vehicle travel may not be possible).
Chances are your organization relies on Internet connections to function, especially if you use cloud computing for file storage, virtual servers and customer support systems. If feasible, consider getting service from at least two different providers using diverse paths to enter your building. If your utilities use the same path, consider wireless backups or at least use different technologies.
Even the best back-ups won’t matter if you don’t have power. Some companies can get by without power and their IT systems for a short time, but if zero downtime is required at your company, make sure you have access to a secondary source of power such as a generator to keep critical systems running.
Take It Off-site
Better yet, consider moving key data and applications to a reputable cloud services provider (CSP) or data center. Even though they must deal with severe weather as well ─ unusual winter storms included ─ the good ones are prepared to do so. To be sure they are, ask about their business continuity and disaster recovery plans, including how often they test them. Do they undergo regular audits by third-party companies and meet the requirements for various regulatory agencies and legislative acts such as HIPAA and PCI? Most entail meeting rigorous security requirements and having a solid disaster recovery plan in place. What kind of disaster recovery services do they offer?
Understand your own requirements for security and uptime as well. Assess the kind of data you have and how important it is to have access to it ─ and how long, if at all, you can go without access. Make sure your CSP or data center operator can meet your recovery point and recovery time objectives.
The Time is Now
Winter will wind down eventually and the threats of winter storms will abate, but each season brings with it the potential for natural disasters of some kind. That’s not going to change. If you don’t have a DR plan in place, start working on one now. If you do have one, evaluate it to make sure it covers any kind of natural disaster ─ even those rare winter ones like some of the southern U.S. has experienced in 2014. Of course, your DR plan should also take into account the myriad possibilities for manmade disasters.
Most important, don’t wait until Hell freezes over to get an up-to-date, tested DR plan in place. It already has.