Trial by Tornado
One records facility's response to a devastating tornado demonstrates the necessity of a solid disaster recovery plan

By Willie M. Jones

This article appeared in Infopro, March 2000, Volume 2, Number 1 page 37-39, ARMA International

In November 1998, around 2 a.m., a tornado swept through Columbia, Missouri, in a matter of minutes. That morning, the University of Missouri records management staff arrived at their workplace to find broken windows and holes in the roof and walls. Loading dock doors and entire trees were gone, ripped away by the storm. The walls of the microfilm operations had been partially knocked down and equipment lay scattered around the room.

The microfilm operations department and another department, University Press, were temporarily relocated to a cold site (an alternate site requiring extensive effort to become operational) and were operational within eight days. The record center, after some temporary repairs, was able to provide limited services to customers by day three. Amazingly, no records were blown from the building or lost.

Fortunately, the records management staff had prepared a plan far in advance of the storm. Without one, they would never have been able to be up and running again so quickly. Whether the records are electronic or paper, there is a lot of information to consider when evaluating and grouping various record series for value, retention, disposition, and protection in the event of disasters.

Creating a Plan

Organizations should consider the types of disasters that can cause disruptions. In natural disasters such as tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, landslides, severe thunderstorms, and hazardous materials spills, the business staff may not report to work as usual. An organization's disaster recovery plan should address such widespread destruction where entire communities suffer hardship or loss of life. Man-made disasters such as stolen computer equipment, sabotage of data files, arson, terrorism, and any number of mistakes due to human error can all cause loss of time and money.

Catastrophes are not limited to the workplace; such things as personal distress and grief must also be taken into account.

When preparing a disaster recovery plan

The size of an organization has little to do with writing a good and functional disaster/contingency plan. The larger the organization or group, the more people will be involved in the plan. Whether the plan involves three people or 300, it has to meet certain goals in order to benefit all that it is intended to protect. A disaster recovery plan must be tailored to the individual business, department, or family.

The following steps are essential in creating your organization's disaster recovery plan:

In business or in our personal lives, we never plan to fail; but, often, we fail to plan.

Many businesses have been left out in the cold when hit by major natural disasters because they did not anticipate that key employees might not show up for work. Disaster prevention and disaster recovery planning for optimal protection should identify situations that would call for cross-training and alternates. Employees living within the range of the disaster may have family injuries or damage to their homes that require their immediate attention.

There should be rules to follow when it comes to disaster recovery and prevention, whether for business or in the home. Safety for human life must be top priority. Every person should be accounted for when evacuations are performed. Disabled and elderly, as well as visitors, should have provisions within the disaster recovery plan. In both plans, everyone must be made aware of a meeting location outside of the facility or home in case of emergency.

When an organization is affected by natural or man-made disaster, the experience can aid future disaster preparedness and recovery planning efforts. There are many ways to learn and benefit from the experience to avoid repeating past mistakes. Evaluate what can be done in the restoration process to bring about a positive change for those who remain in the affected facility, such as updating the furniture and changing the carpet and paint colors.

This could be the perfect time to replace outdated equipment with something modern and environmentally safer for employees. Have a professional planner come in to design a safer, newer layout for a more modern environment to house staff and the new equipment. Turn the negative news into positive, demonstrating the organization's commitment and honesty to its customers. Give clear, informative progress reports, including when the organization will be able to resume business and services at 100 percent.

Recovery According to Plan

The University of Missouri records facility was able to recover from the tornado in a short time only because it had a plan in place. All of the supplies that had been stocked for such a disaster (large and medium tarps, flashlights, batteries, battery-powered radios, mops, and many smaller items) were put to use early on during the pack-out stage of response.

The tornado hit at about 2:15 a.m. and because of the facility's security alarms, the emergency crews were on the site quickly. The disaster recovery plan's calling tree was activated and the disaster recovery team responded as planned. After emergency personnel declared the building safe, the team began the work of photographing the damage, clearing out the rubble, and securing records and computer systems.

Upper management made all of the arrangements for activation of insurance and professional freeze-drying and assisted with locating contractors. The clearing of downed trees, insulation, and electrical conduits by contracted staff allowed the disaster recovery team to focus on the recovery and protection of vital records.

Many companies are reluctant to invest in disaster recovery planning because it seems an unnecessary expense. However, just as we may invest over long periods of time in automobile insurance without encountering an accident, we are covered on that day when thousands of dollars are required for damages that took only a moment to occur.

Disaster recovery and prevention planning is much like insurance to those who want to be prepared to face an emergency with minimal interruption. Training, supplies, and resources are major ingredients for saving time, money, and lives at the time it is needed most.

The Four Phases of Disaster

There are four major phases for emergency planning or management

Each phase is vital to the disaster preparedness, recovery, and prevention planning process. Preparedness incorporates plans or preparations to save lives and help response-and-rescue operations. Evacuation plans and the stocking of food and water are both examples of preparedness. Preparedness activities take place before an emergency occurs.

Response covers actions taken to save lives and prevent further property damage in a disaster or emergency situation. Response is putting preparedness plans into action. Seeking shelter from a tornado or turning off gas valves in an earthquake are both response activities. Response activities take place during an emergency.

The recovery phase covers those actions taken to return to a normal or even safer situation following emergency. Recovery includes getting financial assistance to help pay for the repairs. Recovery activities take place after an emergency.

Mitigation will include any activities that prevent an emergency, reduce the chance of an emergency happening, or reduce the damaging affects of unavoidable emergencies. Buying flood and fire insurance for your home or business is a mitigation activity. Mitigation activities take place before and after emergencies.

Excerpt from Unit 1 of "Emergency Preparedness U.S.A.", reprinted with permission of Federal Emergency Management Agency and Emergency Management Institute. To view the full document, see or FEMA Web site at

Additional Resources

Willie M. Jones is a Records Analyst at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Mo. He can be contacted at

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