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Preparing for a Rainy Day

Protecting your home business from natural disasters means taking normal precautions and communications to the extreme.

Each year from June through November, many American homeowners along the Atlantic and in Gulf Coast states share one common emotion: angst.

Ditto for folks living in Tornado Alley in early spring, Northeasterners in the dead of winter and I would imagine anyone along the San Andreas or other known fault lines any time of year.

Hurricanes, tornadoes, nor'easters, earthquakes, wildfires and other natural disasters can be hazardous to life and property. But when you run a writing business from home, they're bad for business, too.

Realizing this vulnerability exists and planning for contingencies and recovery in advance can help any business limit downtime in the event of a catastrophe.

In the past two years, the threat of hurricanes Georges and Floyd threw many homes and home businesses, including mine, into preparation mode. Patio furniture came in and plywood went up. Computer data was backed up to Zip disk, which then was wrapped in plastic and stashed in a locking drawer of a custom desk anchored to the wall.

Here are quick tips for steeling your home business against disaster:

Keep duplicate records of important electronic and paper files separate from your working data—in a fireproof safe, safety deposit box or locked filing cabinet. Consider using an online service to regularly back up important data. Change outgoing messages to apprise callers of the approaching storm. In severe thunderstorms, unplug computers, printers and fax machines from outlets and/or phone jacks. Keep a list of associates you can depend on in event of a disaster. You may be able to relocate to an unaffected area temporarily and use that associate's office to do business. Review your home-owner's policy and business coverage with an insurance agent annually. If you know disaster is imminent, charge up your laptop and cellular phone. The laptop will permit you to work until power is restored, and cellular phones can still work when conventional phone lines are down.

E-mail messages were sent to all regular clients and contacts, alerting them to the chaos unfolding in the potential target zone. Voice mail messages were changed to an off-site answering service to let callers know the office could be out of service for several days.

The computer was broken down and wrapped in plastic—as were the Rolodexes, fax machine and other electronic equipment—and stashed in the trunk of the family sedan parked in the garage. Files were placed in a locking file cabinet in the closet.

Paranoid? Overly cautious? Maybe. While we personally have been spared the wrath of a significant storm, knowing what to do in the event of a threat helps us prepare the next time.

When a storm or other natural disaster threatens the traditional corporate office, people band together to prepare. Vendors are hired to put up shutters while the worker bees inside help one another prepare for the potential onslaught. After a tornado or earthquake, which typically cannot be "predicted" more than several hours or even minutes out, people in corporate settings work together to recover.

Home office workers are on our own—left to do the double-duty of battening down the home and office. What's worse is we have to set it all back up again when the threat subsides.

The plans we make today will help us prepare for the next natural or man-made disaster, like home fires, plumbing floods, electrical surges, drinks spilled on the PC—all of which can destroy, or at least wreak havoc on, the home office.

Preparation is essential to keeping the business operational. Here are a few pointers to help prepare your home office for any disaster:

  • Regularly make duplicates of all important paper and computer files and pack them in plastic, or place them in a fireproof safe, safety deposit box or locked filing cabinet. Photograph or videotape the office interior to catalog equipment for future insurance claims. Back up all computer data. Either create a tape back-up of the hard drive or copy data files to floppy disks, wrap them in plastic and place them in a safe place. Backups also should frequently be taken to an off-site location, like a friend's office or a bank's safe deposit box. Consider an online service, such as @back-up, to perform frequent, scheduled back-ups of computer data.
  • During severe thunderstorms, unplug computers, printers and fax machines from outlets and telephone jacks.
  • Move cabinets and computers to a safe or central room or closet in the home. Wrap computers in plastic or garbage bags and move the equipment away from windows to prevent water or moisture damage.
  • Charge up the laptop and cellular phone. If you're displaced, having an operational laptop—plus any current project data you downloaded from the main PC before breaking it down—will help keep the business running more smoothly. And often cellular phones still are operational when land phone lines are dead.
  • Change outgoing messages on answering service or machine to note the approaching storm, and assure customers you will return their calls as soon as possible.
  • Send e-mails and faxes to customers before the storm hits to alert them to your situation. Note your expected downtime, a cell phone number where you can be reached and that you will contact them as soon as you are able. Instill confidence that you are prepared.
  • Contingency plans also should include a list of peers, friends or associates whom you can call on in case your office is hit by a storm or disaster. When Hurricane Andrew struck Miami in 1992, many companies and independent workers temporarily moved and resumed their operations in an unaffected area.
  • Call your insurance agent each year to review your home-owner's policy, content limits and business coverage. Inquire about increasing coverage on business equipment. The typical home-owners policy covers dwelling contents as a percentage of the appraised value of the home. Often this excludes or caps business computers or electronic equipment. An inexpensive business insurance rider may increase equipment coverage—and add to peace of mind.
  • Consider purchasing business interruption insurance. This covers downtime if the business is wiped out by a storm, fire or other disaster.
  • Maintain a positive mental attitude. How we persevere amid chaos can help define whom we are as professionals, and as people. At the very least, a hurricane warning can be a good character-builder.

This is especially true for parents who must prepare for or recover from a disaster while convincing young children that all will be fine. We learned during Georges and, later, Floyd to set down the tools and supplies when we saw our children's eyes grow wide in worry and fear. They know more than we often given them credit for, and keen is the parent who realizes that a child's unsettled mind needs tending and assurances that all will be OK—eventually.

A good emergency plan can potentially minimize the impact of storms, disasters and accidents on the home and home office. That knowledge and result in turn can salve your sanity—and that of those around you. And ultimately, it can help get the writing flowing again.

Does the writing business perplex you? Let Jeffery D. Zbar seek the solutions in his monthly Business column. E-mail your ideas or questions to

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