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Volume 30, Issue 4

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Tuesday, 26 January 2016 06:00

How Resilient Businesses Weather Hurricanes, Other Disasters

Written by  Ric Jones

The recent 10th anniversary of devastating Hurricane Katrina – which claimed 1,833 lives and caused $81 billion in property damage and took an incalculable economic and social toll – underscored again how resilient businesses can weather such disasters and what organizations can do to ensure they bounce back from them.

Invariably, these businesses lay the groundwork before the disaster strikes, strengthening their physical and digital infrastructures to lessen and better handle disaster risk. These organizations offer critical lessons learned for other businesses because the frequency of ruinous catastrophes is increasingly familiar – whether they are earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, wildfires, or other unforeseen calamities.

While most business owners don’t think they’ll be affected by a natural disaster, who wants to trust Mother Nature. In a typical year in the United States, more than 1,200 tornadoes occur, 80,000 commercial fires, and eight other major natural disasters, ranging from floods, earthquakes, and even tsunamis. Three major Atlantic hurricanes have struck the U.S. on average each year since 2000. This doesn’t even cover cyber crooks. And when they breach a business’s invaluable database, the damages can approach those from a natural disaster.

As calamities persist, the private and public sectors seek solutions to fortify their businesses and their communities before and after adversity strikes. They look to those that survived and rebuilt after such tragedies to identify and examine their successes and setbacks and to share what seems to work in building or rebuilding risk-resilient operations.

Focusing on LifeShare Blood Centers

One business in particular, impacted by Hurricane Katrina, provides valuable lessons about what an organization can do to be irrepressible in the face of such a disaster. It is LifeShare Blood Centers, based in Shreveport, La. It serves 3.7 million residents of Louisiana, eastern Texas, and southern Arkansas when they require blood.

A close-up look at what LifeShare encountered with Hurricane Katrina and how it fared and, ultimately, recovered offers first-hand counsel to other businesses and organizations who seek to better prepare for and manage the unexpected. In particular, it illuminates how to protect an IT infrastructure and the invaluable data and information it stores – and how to recover that data rapidly and restore operations, returning them to normal.

For more than 70 years, the nonprofit LifeShare Blood Centers has supplied hospitals and other medical facilities with vital red blood cell, plasma, and platelet components. One-in-three residents will require blood at some point, and their lives will depend on that supply being available.

The urgent need for disaster recovery services at LifeShare became glaringly apparent with Hurricane Katrina because the storm jeopardized it and its blood supply. Among other effects, Katrina forced the essential blood supplier to close several of its regional centers, increased blood demand substantially, kept donors from giving blood, and, consequently, decreased levels of critical blood types to dangerously low levels. In effect, Katrina played havoc with its priority: to ensure a safe blood supply that is available during all times of need.

Building Contingencies into Its Planning

This explains why the emergency management business finds it must always build contingencies into its planning and disaster recovery program. In addition to hurricanes and other severe storms, LifeShare must be prepared for the occasional fiber optic cut by a backhoe operator or damage from a lightning strike. For instance, its Lake Charles, La., blood bank once was offline for four days from a lightning strike.

Furthermore, LifeShare must comply with regulatory requirements from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and standards of the American Association of Blood Banks. They call for a secondary data-storage site along with robust data protection and replication if the main data center of a business such as LifeShare goes dark.

This is essential since LifeShare, specifically, stores data that includes financial and payroll systems information, as well as donor information essential to its blood banking operations. Its donor roster numbers 150,000, and it collects health care information on each person.

>Donor data is collected at its seven permanent locations and are networked to the Shreveport headquarters. And if the Shreveport center went offline because of a disaster or any other reason, the other blood centers can't function. Having its data operations always running proves invaluable because LifeShare uses its data to track information about the quantities and types of blood it has available.

Its Website hosts information about the types of blood collected, what is in critical or stable supply, and what is needed. Because the center functions as a round-the-clock supplier of blood, it's important that they are able to quickly locate and dispatch blood from its locations.

Therefore, a top priority for LifeShare involved looking for and identifying a stable, reliable disaster recovery solution for its IT systems and infrastructure.

Since March 2012, LifeShare has used a cloud-based data-recovery system that ensures data is backed up continually and protected and that the system is tested annually. Specifically, LifeShare is supported with secure cloud-based recovery by 12 servers and numerous critical applications that handle its vital blood data – donors, inventory, blood drives – as well as its financial and payroll systems.

A mirror copy of its data systems in Shreveport is replicated in a data center located in the northeast United States, where the possibility the same natural disaster would strike there is extremely unlikely. After the system was deployed, LifeShare's IT staff was able to view real-time data and statistics about the data backup of its 12 servers. That was enhanced by a network capacity upgrade to 10 megabytes from six.

This is important since the blood supplier has a small IT staff managing seven blood centers – including the computer systems and desktop solutions, mobile PCs, and 800 workstations across the operation as well as printers. LifeShare doesn’t have to worry about having its IT staff experienced in disaster recovery. This proves critical because its donor roster is more than 150,000 deep, and it collects and processes about 500 donors a day.

Security is Vital since a Data Breach Could Spell Catastrophe

For LifeShare, a high level of security also is essential. A cyberattack or other data breach can prove as catastrophic as any hurricane. And because both businesses’ offices and agencies are scattered, they have benefited from being able to rely on all of its data storage, data retrieval, and disaster-recovery services.

No business ever wants to live through or deal with the aftermath of a devastating disaster such as Hurricane Katrina. Indeed, many worry whether they can withstand the impact of such a calamity on their businesses. Their concerns are justified. An estimated one-in-four businesses struck by a major disaster don’t reopen.Jones-Ric

But with careful planning, a business can prepare for such an occurrence and recovery without worrying too much about whether its invaluable data and other information are safe and secure.

Ric Jones is chief information officer at LifeShare Blood Centers.