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Hurricanes offer hard lessons but also prove value of disaster preparedness

13 Nov 2017

As the cleanup continues in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, Texas, Florida and elsewhere from some of the most devastating storms these areas have seen in decades, companies would do well to determine what additional steps they can take beyond their usual disaster preparedness plans in the face of serious, “500-year” storms.

Schneider Electric operates data centers around the globe on behalf of its customers, so has detailed disaster preparedness plans in place that we continually update and optimize. In most instances, disaster preparedness means having enough supplies on hand - fuel, wate, and food, for example - to last about 7 days.

That is normally enough time to get roads cleared and such, so you can resupply after the event.

But “normal” doesn’t always apply. With some of these storms, we’ve seen roads largely impassable, making it difficult to distribute the limited supplies that reach the area.

It’s a situation that presents valuable lessons in planning for the worst.

In the data centers Schneider Electric operates, which saw the damage from storms first-hand, our well-established disaster preparedness plan worked well.

In one case, there was widespread damage to many homes in the area, and an almost total loss of power and communications. At that point, the first tenet of all disaster plans kicked in: staff safety and security is the number one priority.

In this case, that extended to not only the 14 Schneider Electric employees who staff the data center, but their families.

With their homes uninhabitable, the employees brought their families to one of the few buildings that withstood the storm: the data center.

Thanks to our disaster preparedness plan, that data center never lost power, as our diesel generators took over.

We also had a 7-day supply of food on hand to feed the staff, another aspect of our normal disaster preparation. So, we told our employees to bring their families and they essentially took up temporary residence.

They weren’t in the data center white space, which maintained its usual high security standards, but in surrounding offices, auxiliary rooms, storage areas and the like.

We were happy to provide them safe quarter. And even though that food supply didn’t account for staffers bringing families, it was invaluable given the dire circumstances. 

All in all, it was a great job done by our data center services team, under extremely difficult circumstances.

Lessons learned

But it’s clear that such major storms call for a few steps that are above and beyond normal disaster preparations.

Here are a few of those elements:

One is an alternate form of communication, namely satellite. With all power and cellular communications knocked out, satellite was the only way to communicate.

It harkened back to the days of dial-up modems in terms of speed, but at least it was good enough to exchange some email, offer updates on the situation and receive updates on the recovery effort.

Again, invaluable.

Second is to think about additional backup power sources, including battery power and solar.

While our generators ensured our customer’s data center never lost power, in a powerful storm there’s a real chance you’ll run out of diesel fuel at some point, or that authorities will take your supply for a more important facility, such as a hospital.

So, it’s a good idea to have an alternate form of power such as solar panels or a rack of batteries to power at least small devices like satellite phones or the walkie talkies we used to communicate locally.

Third, if your data center is in an isolated location, consider upping the ante on the amount of food, diesel and water you have on hand, maybe extending it to last 10 days instead of the usual seven.

Otherwise, put a premium on items related to staff that should be on any good disaster preparedness list.

At some point before the storm hits, you need to determine whether to trigger your evacuation plan, to ensure employees can safely get to an alternate location.

If you opt to ride out the storm, think about replacement staff as well, to relieve the folks who will be manning the data center. Keep in mind many of them may need to tend to their own families, so it’s a good idea to bring in alternate personnel from another location if possible.

Prepare for the worst

But now we’re getting back to elements of any sound disaster preparedness plan. Such a plan will put you in good stead to weather even a fierce storm.

As noted earlier, disaster preparedness is nothing new to Schneider Electric.

Best wishes to all of you who are still recovering from this season’s storms. We’ll continue to do what we can to help.

Article by Anthony DeSpirito, Schneider Electric Data Center Blog 

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