Disaster in Japan an Important Reminder for Us Here at Home

As you have probably already heard, on March 11 at 2:46 p.m. Tokyo time, an enormous 8.9-magnitude earthquake struck the northern coast of Honshu, the main island of Japan, causing widespread damage and triggering a massive tsunami that swept inland, sweeping away boats, cars, and even buildings. Early reports state that hundreds have been killed, but that number is expected to rise. Several of Japan’s nuclear reactors were damaged and had to be shut down to avert radiation leaks, with evacuations ordered for nearby residents.

This morning we received tsunami warnings all the way across the Pacific Ocean here in San Francisco, where the AllBusiness.com offices are located, and the San Francisco Chronicle is reporting that high water is already hitting our local beaches, even damaging some boats.

The horror of such an event can barely be imagined, and my heart goes out to the residents of Japan and anyone with friends and family living there. This disaster is particularly personal for me, as Japan is a country dear to my heart. After graduating college I spent two years teaching English in the town of Toyota (home of the car factory) about an hour outside of Nagoya, a large city in central Honshu. Nagoya is pretty far from the areas hardest hit by this quake, and I’m hopeful that all my old students and friends are OK.

Whenever an act of nature this violent occurs it serves to remind us how fragile we really are — and how important it is to prepare. Here in Northern California we are keenly aware of the ever-present dangers posed by earthquakes and wildfires. In other areas, the danger is more likely to come from tornadoes, flooding, or hurricanes. And, of course, there’s always the possibility of man-made catastrophes, such as last spring’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion that devastated the Gulf Coast economy with a massive oil spill.

In addition to the personal dangers, if you’re a small business owner, disasters can also destroy your business. That’s why it’s so important to address the danger ahead of time:

First and foremost, you need to assure the physical safety of your employees. What have you done to ensure that your staff is safe? Do you have fire extinguishers in key areas of the office or store? Is there a fully stocked disaster kit readily available, and are emergency exits clearly marked in your place of business? In the aftermath of a disaster, do you know how to help your employees cope?

Do you have a disaster plan in place? If not, now is the time to form a crisis management team with your key employees. Who will be responsible for planning emergency exit routes, communicating with employees in the aftermath of a disaster, and taking an inventory of the critical business functions that must be resumed as soon as possible?

Think about what you are doing to protect not just your physical assets (equipment, inventory, etc.) but also your critical business data. Are your vital business and legal records stored safely offsite — preferably out of range of any local disaster — where they can be recovered later? If you haven’t already done so, now is the time to start using a data recovery service.

Is your business fully insured? Disaster insurance doesn’t necessarily protect you against everything (floods and earthquakes are often excluded), so do your homework and make sure your policy covers the events for which you’re actually at risk. If you live in earthquake country, then a named peril policy may be a better choice than a more general all-risk policy.

A traditional Japanese saying holds shikata ga nai (“It cannot be helped”). This fatalistic aphorism reveals a lot about the Japanese psyche, and I often mutter it to myself when things go wrong. There’s no more simple or profound way to say that these heartbreaking events were completely out of anyone’s control. Here’s hoping the worst is over, and that as the sun rises on Japan this morning, the damage won’t be as extensive as feared.