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Small Business | LEARNING CURVE: SUE'S SECRETARIAL
SERVICE

Shaken Up : Lessons From '94 Quake Aid Firm

December 10, 1996

The Northridge earthquake of January 1994 damaged the building housing Sue's Secretarial Service so badly that owner Sue Clamage was never allowed inside to retrieve important computer files, customer records or completed assignments. Since then she has improved her disaster-preparedness strategy by storing backup computer files at home and maintaining a line of credit. Clamage was interviewed by Karen Kaplan.

Before the Northridge earthquake, I had spent 15 years in a six-story medical building in West Los Angeles. It was built in the 1960s, but it had survived the 1971 Sylmar quake so I figured it was safe. Even on the day of the Northridge quake I figured: "Well, the office is fine. I'll check on my friends and family."

That night, people called to tell me they had seen my building on the news and it looked like it had been badly damaged. The next morning the National Guard was there with rifles. They said, "Sorry, you're not allowed to go in there." I told them I just needed to get some of my stuff and they said they couldn't let anyone in because the building was structurally unsafe.

Then we were told they would knock the building down. I kept figuring they would have to let us in to get our stuff. I wanted to get my floppy disks and all of the work that was yet to be done or that had been finished but hadn't been picked up. We tried to get a judge to issue a temporary restraining order so we could go inside. But they knocked it down without letting us in.

I lost five computers, three printers, a huge Xerox machine and a phone dictation system. Altogether the office equipment was worth about $65,000. I can't even put a value on the work that was lost.

I had a standard business insurance policy, but I couldn't get earthquake insurance. My insurer paid me more than I thought I would get, but it was still far less than the value of my losses.

I had stored my files on floppy disks because I was always told to back up everything important on a floppy. But I left them at the office. Of course if I had taken the disks home it would have been infinitely more helpful.

Now I have a magnetic tape backup drive in my computer. The tape is about the size of an audiocassette and it can hold all the data on my entire hard drive, including my Quicken and my billing files. It takes about five minutes to update the changes I've made each day. That tape goes home with me every night.

Any time I buy anything, I call my insurance agent to raise my coverage. When I renew my policy every year, I also check with my accountant to make sure I'm totally covered.

I also got a credit line from a bank. One of my clients is a banker and he insisted on getting it for me. I had never had one before and I never thought I needed one because I always paid for things in cash. It has really been great for my peace of mind. If some kind of disaster happens again, I won't have to wait for the insurance money to come through--I'll be able to go ahead and get what I need and worry about paying for it later.

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AT A GLANCE

Company name: Sue's Secretarial Service

Owner: Sue Clamage

Nature of business: Secretarial service

Location: West Los Angeles

Year founded: 1979

Number of employees: 3

Expected annual sales: $200,000

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