Emergency Management Lessons from 9/11 Published September 11, 2017

By: Rose State College Professor of Emergency Management, Jackie Wright

Emergency Managers Group TogetherOn September 11th, 2001, all World Trade Center offices were destroyed. The harshest impact for most companies was their loss of staff -- as few recovery plans anticipated this magnitude of catastrophe. Many companies directly impacted couldn’t even determine who of their staff had survived, or where they were because hardly any kept secure, accessible lists of employees with updated contact information.  A few companies had pre-planned for staff problems, requiring managers to carry two cell phones provided by separate carriers in case both the landline telephone and one cell phone did not work. Much of the plans in place were predicated on the 1993 WTC attack.

The Economic Cost of Disaster

Office space loss alone was in excess of 15 million square feet, and the finance industry's equipment loss was immense.  Securities firms spent an estimated $3.2 billion just to replace computer equipment. Much of the WTC information technology and telecommunications equipment was underground and destroyed by collapsed debris. The replacement estimates included 16,000 workstations, 34,000 desktop computers, over 8,000 servers, and massive numbers of computer terminals, printers, storage devices, hubs and switches. Just setting this equipment back up cost over a billion dollars, not to mention lost time in productivity.

Local disaster recovery companies provided limited workspace for customers, with some offering tractor-trailers equipped with portable data centers. Not all plans worked however. One bank had planned to evacuate over 1,000-people to its disaster recovery site in New Jersey, however the site proved too small for it’s employees. Additionally, bridges and tunnels leaving NYC were immediately closed so most employees had limited transportation options.

Protecting Data and Productivity

Data loss is critical and requires extensive planning. "Cold site" recovery required a company to back up their own data and store it offsite. Backups are transported to an alternate site, which often doesn’t happen in a timely manner. The load, reboot, and synchronization process can take upwards of 24 hours. Worse, if the company’s off-site storage is close to the disaster area, all can still be lost, with any transactions between the last backup and the incident impact being irretrievable. "Hot site" backups solve many loss issues, but are incredibly costly. This offsite location has a reserve computer continually creating a mirror image of the production computer's data. If the primary site is rendered unusable, staff goes to the hot site. If the hot site is inside the impacted area, all data may be lost.

One company never lost a day of service or production. It was, and still is, a relatively small IT company whose Continuity of Operations (COOP) plan was simple: If we can’t get to the office, we take the office to the bosses’ homes. A rotating schedule of work on a weekly basis started with the CEO’s home and worked down through the hierarchy of command for ten locations. So, one week out of ten, workers arrived at that Senior Manager’s home and set up shop. It took over a year to find a location suitable to resume business in a traditional business center, but less than a day to resume service to customers.

emergency manager surveys disasterWhat is your plan?

So, what’s your plan to resume service to your customers? If you’re IT? A place of worship? A school, public or private? Or just a simple corner grocery store in rural or suburban Oklahoma whose profits are the sole source of revenue for your family? Sure, you may not have anywhere near the level of production, service, or customer base the companies in the WTC had. But the one thing you MUST understand; it’s your personal responsibility to be prepared for this type of eventuality. Your customers, your family, your employees, your community; they’re all depending on you. And if you don’t believe it will ever happen to you, ask the business owners in Houston or Florida whether they believed it would ever happen to them. In Oklahoma, other than Tsunamis and Volcanoes, we experience almost every type natural disaster. The perspective of eventualities here is strong, our COOP plan must be as well.