Weathering the Storm

Catastrophes real and manmade underscore the need for disaster planning.

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The fact that one employee had to drive around in his car while charging a PDA so that text messages could be sent says something about the difficulties facing Charles Coe's CPA firm and its offices in Baton Rouge and just outside of New Orleans, following the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina in August. "He would start driving around so he could get a signal and pull down email and return emails and things of that sort," says Coe, owner of Coe Solutions, based in Metairie, La., with an office that was fortunately on the safe side of the Mississippi Levee, whose collapse on the other side contributed to the inundation of the Crescent City.

Devastation was all around. The buildings on either side of Coe's office building were destroyed. There were no lights, water, toilets, cell phone service, or working voice land lines. Many customers were in similar straits. Coe at least was able to evacuate the staff to Baton Rouge, where they watched what was expected to be a routine leave-and-return hurricane ritual turn into an ordeal. Of course, Hurricane Katrina put much of New Orleans under water and knocked out the power in Baton Rouge for most of three weeks.

Amid the devastation, Coe and many others are trying to run their own businesses and resurrect those of their clients.

Partner Insights

Laptop Users Need Back-up Too

While many firms worry about the data and physical security in their offices, many have yet to address the problems facing mobile users.

Sure, they may return to the office and synchronize data on a regular basis. But computers can be stolen or dropped. And perhaps just as often, a hard drive simply fails, says David Cieslak, principal of the Encino, Calif.-based Information Technology Group.

"With mobile users, we have gotten clobbered several times," says Cieslak.

He recommends that all laptop users be equipped with a USB 2 external drive with 40MB of storage. That should be left "at whatever place the user calls home," he continues.

Since an 80MB external drive costs about $80, it is a fairly cheap investment for protecting data. "As long as it's plugged in, it will automatically perform back-ups," says Cieslak. There is a pretty simple formula for remembering to use the external drive. He recommends that "when you plug into the battery recharger, plug the drive 23 into a USB port."

"We didn't have any problems getting stuff back up and running only because we were able to come back into the city and grab a little equipment," he says.

But all the back-ups in the world don't matter if employees don't have housing or a place to work. One of the challenges was to bring the staff together from the many locations and states to which they were dispersed.

One thing worked well-the Internet. With wireless connections, the company sent email instructions to employees and clients to drive them to a newly erected blog. It was here that Coe put out information.

The Web connection stayed up because the firm shifted its Web site and email to a third-party hosting site. "We did that as we headed out of town. That is why our Web site stayed up and our email stayed up," Coe says. Since then, the firm has shifted to in-house hosting to support clients. Coe continues, "There is a possibility we will push it back out again."

Clients had a variety of experiences. One faced the classic back-up problem: Its back-up tapes were on top of a computer in the office. When the water rose, the back-ups and the computers were inundated. Fortunately, that client also backed up its data via the Internet and it was restored via the Internet.

Another company went the opposite way. It followed the policy of hauling the computers away in a truck when a hurricane threatened. Its hardware and data were saved.

"That particular client was able to get back up very quickly," Coe notes. "What at the time would look like overkill has turned out to be very smart."

A major issue for the firm and its clients was being able to restore applications. Businesses whose offices were destroyed also lost their hardware and application CDs. Getting replacement CDs from Microsoft was a trying experience.

"Two days after the storm, we had requested from Microsoft SQL Server, Windows Server 2000, Server 2003, XP, Exchange, and a couple of other things," says Coe. "We put in a request [to Microsoft] and got a response that said, 'We have procedures back in place. Send client name, phone, and volume licensing number.'"

Even though Microsoft agreed to ship software, Coe says the response was not acceptable in terms of helping clients restore operations quickly, especially since the vendor's ability to ship was also delayed by the Labor Day holiday. The financial applications from Microsoft Business Solutions were not an issue, he says: The firm had copies of the MBS application and the codes to unlock the software.

The Internet

If there's any theme that emerges, it is the importance of the increasing use of the Internet for disaster recovery, because it can be used to disperse data to geographic areas away from destruction.

The fact that the Sprint and T-Mobile Internet lines stayed up while voice lines went down was a major factor in Coe's ability to function. And the security that the Internet provides is attracting an increasing amount of attention from tax and accounting professionals.

Interest in Creative Solutions Internet services have risen dramatically, says Jack LaRue, marketing vice president for Dexter, Mich.-based CSI.

"Our overall Web services are up 28 percent," LaRue says. That includes users who have signed up for the company's Virtual Office and its portals. Virtual Office CS is an application system provider platform that enables customers to run CSI applications remotely. Users can also run Microsoft Office and Exchange via the system.

Vendors Respond to Disasters

With destruction affecting such a large area of the country in the wake of the season's major storms, vendors have been responding to their clients' problems.

Bellevue, Wash.-based Orrtax Software Solutions offered a number of features, including the following:

* Free software replacement for IntelliTax for Windows, years 2002 to 2004, and IntelliTax Classic, years 1996 to 2004.

* Free replacement and shipping of Orrtax marketing materials.

* Deferred payments, until Feb. 15, 2006, for purchases of 2005 IntelliTax software.

* Delay of current outstanding balances, until Feb. 15, 2006.

* Temporary hold on mailing of all product updates, newsletters, invoices and billing statements to addresses located in affected areas.

* Submission of a new mailing, shipping, or e-mail address.

Creative Solutions was offering:

* Free Virtual Office CS set-up for up to 60 days.

* Free replacement software, including free shipping to a new office location.

* Uninterrupted service for customers who have license agreements that expire before they can resume normal business functions.

* Free replacement of forms, checks, and other supplies from the company's preferred vendor, Forms CS.

Intuit offered a variety of services to customers in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. Among its offerings are

* Free software, including replacement copies of QuickBooks, Simple Start, and QuickBooks Enterprise Software.

* A free year of technical support for QuickBooks software, QuickBooks Enterprise, and QuickBooks services, along with support, including ProAdvisor accountants and professional tax support.

* In some cases, particularly QuickBooks Point of Sale, it offered replacement hardware and software.

"That is the fastest growing part of our business." He notes that fast growth is still occurring on a small base.

But LaRue says that especially during the Florida Institute of CPAs' accounting show in Fort Lauderdale in September, "there was a lot more discussion about moving into the Virtual Office." However, he continued that "people are more prepared. They knew what they needed to do. They just never got around to it."

Phones vs. Web

As with Coe's experience, Eagle Consulting Group has already found that the Internet was a key to business continuity. In a typical New York event, the firm lost telephone service for three weeks as a result of a fire in a manhole that knocked out Verizon phone service for several blocks. Some people in the same building had service, except not the deli that provides many with lunch.

Outside of walking down to the deli, the firm worked around the phone problem by using cell phones for outbound calls, although it took a week to get calls forwarded to staff members' cell phones for incoming traffic. That was nowhere near as big a problem as briefly losing Internet service earlier.

"We lost Internet access for a couple of hours a couple of months ago. That was a disaster. We couldn't get email," says Eagle's owner Debra Ellis. The firm also provides remote support, so not being able to see users' computer screens was a major handicap.

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