Small Business: Disaster planning, recovery

Being able to respond quickly post-disaster and communicate

Being able to respond quickly post-disaster and communicate to your customers, employees and other key stakeholders is critical for those looking to rebuild and get back in business, say experts. Spage's Pharmacy opened for business using a lantern and shared a generator after superstorm Sandy took out power at its St. James address. (Nov. 3, 2012) (Credit: Heather Walsh)

Jamie Herzlich

Newsday columnist Jamie Herzlich Jamie Herzlich

Herzlich writes the Small Business column in Newsday.

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Disaster can strike a business at any moment.

It doesn't necessarily take a hurricane to cause a major business disruption.

Being able to respond quickly post-disaster and communicate to your customers, employees and other key stakeholders is critical for those looking to rebuild and get back in business, say experts.

You need to have a plan, explains Terrence Flood, co-principal of The Flood Group in Floral Park, an insurance and risk management firm: "You can't just wing it."

Prioritize what needs to be done, write it down and communicate that message to employees, customers, vendors etc., Flood says. "You need to have an end in mind."

Help workers. For starters, the well-being of your employees should be at the top of your mind.

"People come first," says Patti Bloom, president of Bloom Resource Group in Bethpage, a business continuity consulting firm. Figure out if they're OK and what their immediate needs are, she says.

Provide them with alternatives and resources they may not be able to find on their own, she suggests. For instance, if they'll be out of work for some time, they may want to look into disaster unemployment assistance, she says. Also, if it's going to take some time to reopen, consider how you'll keep employees from leaving for good, Flood says.

Set up alternate sites. See if you can operate from a temporary location while you're rebuilding, he says.

Customers next. Their needs should also be top priority. If you're unable to open right away, give them a timeline on when you may reopen and perhaps offer alternatives.

That's what Reed Fedner, owner of Tutor Time in East Rockaway, tried to do after his facility, which serves about 190 students, suffered damages from superstorm Sandy.

"We can't open until I get the place back to 100 percent," says Fedner, who also owns a Tutor Time in Baldwin and Lindenhurst. He transferred some students over to his Baldwin facility and hopes to reopen the East Rockaway location by January.

If you don't have another facility to offer customers, consider forging temporary strategic alliances with similar businesses to share their facilities or services, Flood says.

But your goal should be to reopen as soon as possible, and you should immediately work with your insurance company to get your claim resolved. Take photographs of any damage and document all losses.

Have records handy. Organize your books and financial records so you have them ready to produce for insurance claims, says Paul Berger, founder of the Hurricane Law Group in Coconut Creek, Fla., which specializes in disaster recovery legal services.

Insurers may want your past three years of financial statements, tax returns, inventory invoices, etc., he adds, noting you should never hand over originals but rather make copies.

And read your policy, he advises. "Nobody ever reads their insurance policy," Berger says.

Understand what you're entitled to. If you feel you're being underpaid by the insurance company based on estimates, you can object to the amount, he says. For claims of $50,000 or more in damages you may want to get professional help (such as a public insurance adjuster or lawyer) from the outset, he adds. Policies can be "unbelievably complex."

When you begin remediation, make sure you're working with contractors licensed for the specific task you need, Bloom says. And use the post-disaster period to learn some valuable lessons. For instance, what steps or contingency plans that weren't in place before do you need to incorporate going forward?

"It's not always a natural disaster," says Bloom, noting business interruption can come from a variety of sources. "People should start to expand their thought process."