When an oil refinery near New Orleans was left 10 feet under water following Hurricane Katrina last year, it turned to a unit of Honeywell, the US conglomerate, to help it recover from the disaster.
Honeywell stripped out the refinery’s damaged electronic systems and transported them to a facility in Houston for repair.
But shortly after arriving in Houston, the electronics had to be moved again as Hurricane Rita bore down on the Texas coast.
Their next stop was Oklahoma and then Philadelphia, where they were refurbished before being returned to the Louisiana refinery once the floodwater had receded.
The episode was typical of countless salvage operations forced on businesses along the US gulf coast following Katrina and Rita.
Mark Neas, vice president of Honeywell Process solutions, says the devastating hurricanes demonstrated the vulnerability of businesses to natural disasters. Honeywell is one of a growing number of companies offering disaster preparedness and recovery services as industries become increasingly aware of the need to plan for worst-case scenarios.
Businesses have been focusing more attention on disaster preparedness since the 2001 terrorist attacks on the US highlighted the vulnerability of New York’s financial centre to catastrophic disruption.
But last year’s hurricanes showed that nature is arguably a bigger threat to business than terrorism.
While this year’s Atlantic hurricane season has been relatively quiet so far, there has been a clear trend over the past 15 years towards more frequent and powerful tropical storms.
The cause of increased hurricane activity is the focus of intense debate, with some scientists blaming global warming while others attribute it to a natural cycle.
But while a link between hurricanes and global warming remains unproven, a growing body of opinion supports a broader theory that climate change is causing an increase in extreme and violent weather of all kinds around the world. “It is not just the increased frequency of storms that has alarmed business, it is also the scale of destruction caused by Katrina that opened people’s eyes,” says Mr Neas.
“It showed that business has to be prepared for the big one-off events that do not happen often but cause huge disruption when they do.”
Honeywell’s customers included many of the oil refineries and chemical plants that were knocked out of action by Katrina – causing supply shortages and increased energy prices throughout the US.
“Some of the refineries had not been as aggressive as they should have been about backing up their IT, keeping enough spare parts for replacements and generally building enough redundancy into their systems,” says Mr Neas. “Katrina was a big learning experience for us and our customers.”
One of Honeywell’s main roles in preparing businesses for catastrophe is making sure critical facilities can be shut down quickly and safely when disaster strikes.
Another priority is ensuring that the company’s own employees are safe.
“If we cannot take care of our own people following a disaster, they cannot take care of our customers,” says Mr Neas.
“After Katrina, we had project managers helping manage reconstruction of employees’ homes and administrative assistants finding places for families to live.
“We had people with a personal crisis going on and we needed them helping to get chemical plants and oil refineries back up and running as quickly as possible.”
Another large provider of disaster preparedness and recovery services is Pennsylvania-based SunGard, which generates $4bn of annual revenues and boasts more than 10,000 customers in North America and Europe, including 80 per cent of the Fortune 50 list of largest US companies.
SunGard operates more than 3m sq ft of hardened data centres capable of keeping customers’ information technology systems running in the event that disaster strikes a critical facility.
The need for redundancy to be built into IT systems has become increasingly well understood as business becomes more dependent on electronic data.
But David Palermo, vice-president of marketing at SunGard, says protecting IT systems is useless unless employees can keep the business running following a disaster.
SunGard keeps 20,000 seats available 24 hours a day in 60 office spaces in North America and Europe, ready to be filled by workers displaced by a disaster.
Many businesses are loath to incur the cost of preparing for an event that may never happen.
But for those that take a gamble, the consequences can be severe.
Mr Palermo says a third of businesses struck by natural disaster fail to recover.
Honeywell’s Mr Neas says few of his customers have any doubts about the value of disaster preparedness after Katrina.
“When the customer saw the commitment we had to getting them back up and running it really helped strengthen our relationship with them,” he says. “It was no longer a customer-vendor relationship. It became a partnership.”