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Quake shakes belief in readiness

An office manager sees her preparation efforts come up short. But there are steps to help ensure success.

August 18, 2008|Cyndia Zwahlen | Special to The Times

As administrative manager for an Encino dental practice, Melody LeBlanc had trained the staff on what to do when an earthquake hits. Even her husband knew the rules for handling a disaster.

But when the Chino Hills quake hit last month, one worker ran across the room and headed outside while patients looked around in panic for someone to tell them what to do. Then her husband called to ask if she had felt the moderate 5.4 temblor.

It was, of course, exactly what people were not supposed to do, said LeBlanc, who also co-chairs the disaster preparation committee at the Encino Chamber of Commerce.

Her staff knew they were supposed to drop to the ground and take cover. They knew to take patients to a window-free corner of the office. Her husband knew to stay off the phone for the first 30 minutes after a disaster to allow emergency calls to get through.

"Here we are, the big activist, always pushing hard and talking to everybody, and the first thing that happens is everybody reverts back to things they remembered from when they were 10 years old," LeBlanc said.

The chamber, of which she is a past president, has made disaster preparation a priority.

The scene that day was an eye-opener for a woman who gives earthquake preparation kits as Christmas presents and has long stocked the office kitchen with emergency supplies, including water and canned goods.

It could serve as a wake-up call for your small business, too.

Next month is National Preparedness Month. The motto -- "Get a kit, make a plan, be informed. and get involved" -- could be a mini-checklist for small-business owners who intend to stay in business after an earthquake or other disaster.

Locally, the Great Southern California ShakeOut, which is based on successful drills held in Japan, is scheduled for November. The organizers plan to release a preparedness booklet for small and medium-size businesses next month.

Here's a sneak peak at their advice:

Seven steps small businesses can take to prepare for a disaster:

* Identify and fix potential hazards. These can be as obvious as filing cabinets or display cases that have not been secured to the walls. Less obvious: boxes on a shelf next to an emergency exit. A good shake can knock them down and block the door.

Ask your employees for input. Tour your space, inside and outside. Learn where the utilities are located. Don't forget to look up.

* Create a disaster plan. Start with simple questions. How will you survive the disaster itself? Who will you need to communicate with and how will you do so? What are the key equipment, data, inventory and functions your firm needs to operate? How will you protect them? Where will you set up shop if you cannot get back into your building for an unknown period of time?

General guidelines can be found at a number of sites online, including

More comprehensive planning strategies, such as learning about the different ways to back up data off-site, and how to test the process, are in books such as the newly released second edition of "Prepare for the Worse, Plan for the Best: Disaster Preparedness and Recovery for Small Business" (John Wiley & Sons Inc.) by Donna R. Childs.

* Prepare a disaster-supplies kit. You'll need more than a first-aid kit.

Supplies should cover the basics for survival: water, food and warmth. You'll need enough for you, your employees and any customers on hand for at least three days, although based on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, many experts now recommend stocking two-week's worth of supplies.

"Here is the thing many businesses don't think about," said Ines Pearce, chief executive of Pearce Global Partners Inc. in Los Angeles and the head writer of the booklet. "Institutions such as 911 are not going to be available, so if you have someone injured or you need to stay put for a while, these are the types of things that will take care of you."

Gear as simple as a crowbar could help pry open jammed doors. An AM/FM radio with extra batteries is an obvious next step up. A generator wired into emergency systems may seem like a luxury but could keep your business in operation when the power is out.

LeBlanc said she makes sure employees at the dental office owned by Dr. Stephen Y. Yu have personal disaster-supply backpacks with food and water in their cars as well as in their homes.

* Identify your building's potential weaknesses. These can be such major items as unreinforced brick walls to seemingly minor issues such as doors with electronic locks or equipment on timers.

If you lease space, talk with the property manager or owner about the construction of the building and the specifics of any emergency plan, including contact information. At home, consider hiring a structural engineer to give you a construction assessment.

"In disaster after disaster I have seen [owners of] small businesses standing outside, and they cannot get in," Pearce said.

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