I remember watching the coverage of the Oklahoma tornadoes this past spring and thinking how fortunate I am to live in an area (New England) where tornadoes don’t happen very often. But when you think about it, every part of the country has its own set of natural disasters to deal with: earthquakes and wildfires on the West Coast, hurricanes in the South and along the East Coast, floods and tornadoes in the Midwest, and blizzards and Nor’easters in the Northeast.

Turn on the Weather Channel and you’ll be reminded of this almost every day: a crestfallen homeowner or businessperson standing in front of a building destroyed by a disaster. That couldn’t happen to you—right? Not quite.

Yes, it can happen to you

In fact, more than a quarter of small businesses will experience a disaster of some sort within any given year—and of those, 40 percent will never reopen. Given these risks, surprisingly few small business owners put much thought into emergency preparedness. According to the 2013 AT&T Small Business Data Security Poll, 46 percent don’t have a plan to continue operations after a disaster.

Why? Over half (52 percent) say their businesses are too small to need a plan, according to the poll. But last I saw, those tornadoes in the Midwest, hurricanes in the East, and wildfires in the West didn’t avoid small businesses in favor of big ones. And many of the companies that didn’t prepare were simply destroyed.

What can you do to help your company survive?

Make a plan

It’s critical that you create a business continuity plan—and put it in writing. It won’t take long. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has a sample plan you can follow. Just consider the processes and resources you’ll need to reopen your business. Among them:

  • Identify the types of disasters that could affect your company.
  • Assign emergency response tasks — such as contacting other staff members and securing key technology — to employees.
  • Pre-arrange the replacement of destroyed equipment to help you return to work quickly.
  • Keep a list of key customers, vendors, and suppliers handy so you can reach them quickly if needed.
  • Create an evacuation plan that includes a meeting place for employees if your office space is damaged.
  • Establish procedures for employees to work remotely or at another location if your main place of business is unusable.
  • Set up a call forwarding service to your backup location.
  • Plan what to do if your suppliers or partners are forced to close for an extended time.
  • Have a backup power supply if your work needs to be conducted onsite.
  • Train your employees to follow the plan and refresh the training at least once a year.

It’s also important to back up your business data offsite. More than half (52 percent) of small companies don’t store their data away from their main location, the AT&T poll found. So if that location is destroyed, their critical information is, too. In my opinion, you should store your data in two places: on a server in your office and in the cloud—offsite third-party servers that you access over the Internet—so you know crucial information is safe elsewhere if disaster strikes.

For more ideas on preparing for an emergency, take a look at this business continuity handbook and preparedness checklist. The Small Business Administration also has a number of good resources.

How are you safeguarding your business in the event of a disaster? Share your tips below.

 

Alice Bredin is America’s foremost small business expert, with more than 15 years of experience in the small business market. She has provided highly practical, actionable advice to millions of business owners through her books, syndicated newspaper column, radio commentary, and small business forums.