Fleeing Katrina

At 2 a.m. on Aug. 27, two days before Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, Tim Babco grabbed a red binder containing the latest version of SCP Pool Corp.’s disaster recovery plan, put his dog and cat in the car, locked up his house and drove 500 miles from Covington, La., where the company is headquartered, to its emergency operations center in Dallas.

Babco, senior director of IT at SCP, a US$1.3 billion wholesale distributor of swimming pool supplies, had gone through the motions of relocating his operations twice before when hurricanes had threatened neighboring New Orleans. Both of those storms turned out to be near misses, but Babco said recently that the practice runs helped him fine-tune his plan for when the real thing finally hit.

“People would be lying to say these things always go perfectly,” Babco said. “But has it succeeded in allowing our business operations to continue to buy, sell and distribute products? It certainly has, and that’s what disaster recovery is all about.”

The kind of disaster recovery planning that Babco did isn’t universal, however, especially for a calamity as massive as Katrina. Simon Mingay, a business continuity and disaster recovery analyst at Gartner Inc., said that about 40 percent of the Fortune 1,000 companies aren’t prepared for a regional disaster. And small and midsize businesses are even less ready, he said.

“Obviously, we’re looking at a level of devastation here that few would have considered,” Mingay said. “But most still believe that these are things that don’t happen to them.”

Mingay said companies that have prepared properly for disasters, such as SCP, have extensive emergency communications plans, hot sites from which they can continue business operations for an extended period and some level of IT systems redundancy outside of their headquarters region.

Three years ago, Babco decided to flip-flop SCP’s primary and secondary data centers, placing its critical systems in the Dallas facility, which is run by Houston-based VeriCenter Inc. He also created an IT disaster recovery team consisting of key employees for functions such as coordinating help desk services and relocating hardware. In addition, SCP has set up an internal business-continuity Web site that posts corporate alerts and provides toll-free numbers and an extensive list of employee contact information.

Not everything went smoothly. Babco had to make an unplanned trip from Dallas to SCP’s headquarters to retrieve 12 internal application servers, including ones supporting human resources and e-mail.

He also said he was unable to get a response from Boston-based Iron Mountain Inc., which handles off-site data storage for SCP. The area around Iron Mountain’s Kenner, La., storage facility was flooded and inaccessible, said Babco, who added that he would have liked to have had SCP’s backup tapes sent to Dallas in advance of the storm.