Earthquake Tuesday's mid-Atlantic earthquake rattled nerves, sparked inspired bits of humor, and was generally the talk of the Eastern seaboard.

It also got Jennifer Elder thinking about disaster preparedness.

Jennifer is a CPA, CMA, CIA, CFF, MACPA member, and president of The Sustainable CFO in Edgewater, Md. She saw first-hand the confused and uncertain responses that disasters produce, and it left her with a greater appreciation of the need for well-designed disaster plans.

Once the ground stopped shaking, she wrote the following guest post for our blog. Here are her thoughts:

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When I was growing up, my Mom used an expression: “There's no use closing the barn door after the horses have escaped.” She would follow it up with a lecture about how you can't undo a mistake. And Mom was usually right.

However, after experiencing Tuesday's 5.8 magnitude earthquake in a 12-story building and witnessing the various responses, I think there are a lot of companies (and employees) that need to “close the barn door” and revisit their disaster planning.

When the building began to shake and grumble, without knowing what was going on, some employees jumped up and headed for the door, yelling to their co-workers as they rushed by their offices. Some stayed in their offices, shutting down their computers, putting papers away in cabinets, and shutting off lights — acting as if 2 p.m. was the normal end of their day.

Heading for the stairs, we passed people actually waiting for the elevator. On the stairs, there were people calmly but quickly heading down; there were some pushing and shoving; there were people paralyzed with fear who suddenly stopped moving.

Outside the building, people huddled in groups, some checking on their co-workers, some frantically trying to call family. After 30 minutes, people started to get a bit antsy. No one was quite sure what to do. Do we go back into the building? Is it safe? Who do we ask?

Using another one of my Mom's expressions, “Hindsight is 20 / 20,” I believe there is a lot to learn from the experience, and it starts with disaster planning.

The differences in people's responses were striking. There were those who were calm and collected and knew what to do and could help others along the way. At the other extreme were those who had no idea what to do, were terrified, and slowed others down.

While in the end there was no serious damage or harm done, I'm left with the question, “What would have happened if it had been worse? Would we have known what to do?”

The need for a disaster plan became obvious. Every company needs to have a disaster plan that covers the following:

  • Emergency planning: What can you prepare for ahead of time?
  • Emergency response: What would you do when a disaster hits?
  • Employees: What employees are critical for your operations? What support can you provide your employees?
  • Communications: How will you communicate with employees and customers? (Cell phones didn't work for quite a while after the earthquake.)
  • Disaster recovery: How will you mitigate damage?
  • Business continuation: How will you get critical operations up and running as soon as possible?

While the likelihood that we will ever experience another earthquake is hopefully very slim, a basic disaster plan can cover a variety of emergencies that may be more likely.

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Want to find out more about disaster planning? Check out these resources:

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