Lesson of Hurricane Hugo: Plan Recovery

On the morning of September 22, 1989, in Charleston, South Carolina, there was no electricity or running water. There was no way to call to complain or find out when services would resume, because the telephones also were not working.

Transportation options were limited to walking, riding a bicycle or perhaps horseback, because the streets were impassable due to fallen trees and power lines. Even as the roads were cleared, transportation was further hampered as filling stations were closed because there was no electricity to operate the gasoline pumps. Plenty of cash was also needed, because the banks and credit unions were closed and the ATMs were not in service.

These were the conditions confronting Charleston residents after Hurricane Hugo passed through on the night of September 21, 1989, on its way to the interior of South Carolina.

Widespread Impact

While a hurricane, unlike many other types of disasters, allows some time for advance preparations, its impact is no less severe.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Hugo caused more than $7 billion in damages, destroyed approximately one billion board feet of timber, and caused 82 deaths. The Hugo storm surge, estimated at 20 feet, set a new record for the East Coast of the United States.

Hugo’s impact was not just on individuals in Charleston. Businesses, government agencies, and other organizations were confronted with major challenges in disaster recovery and business resumption.

For a major military data center, there were a number of lessons learned that apply to recovery and business resumption following any disaster.

Training Needed

In addition to having disaster plans in place, it is critical to keep personnel trained to carry them out effectively. In addition, if possible, it is important to give people enough lead time to accomplish all of the planned disaster preparations.

Organizations must ensure that all appropriate staff receives training for their respective plan components. For example, if users will be responsible for helping to move computer equipment, they should be trained how to disconnect the computers to move them to safer locations within the buildings. Improperly disconnecting equipment can cause damage, which can then unnecessarily delay return to service on the desktops. Equipment remaining in vulnerable locations risks water damage.

Operations personnel must be aware of details such as the locations of emergency power off switches, and how to properly shut down the fire alarm, fire suppressant and uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems.

Equipment Protection

The military center director in Charleston had the foresight and experience to have obtained custom plastic covers for the mainframe equipment, servers and peripherals in the center. These covers were a key element in preventing water damage to the equipment, so the center was able to quickly resume operations.

However, water damage occurred to desks, file cabinets, and office equipment that were not covered, due to a shortage of plastic sheeting and tape. All furnishings and equipment in a facility are important to business resumption and should be protected.

Communications Planning

The center shut down late in the day on September 21. On the advice of local authorities, many of the civilian staff members evacuated the city with their families.

In such a situation, it is critical that the organization have a plan in place to enable key personnel to make contact and report their locations. In addition, all key positions should be cross-trained to help ensure that essential skills and knowledge will be available when they are most needed.

As has been demonstrated in more recent disasters, contact “trees” utilizing telephones, cellular phones and electronic mail will not suffice in a disaster situation when service will likely be interrupted. Alternate methods of communication and dissemination of critical information are required, such as two-way battery powered radios for essential personnel.

Commercial Power

One of the most severe problems businesses faced in post-Hugo Charleston was the lack of commercial power. Few enterprises had backup generator systems at the time.

One company, a building supplies distributor, brought in a generator from Houston — which took 36 hours to arrive in Charleston. Some organizations deployed to backup sites at locations such as Atlanta, Philadelphia and Norfolk, but this involved sending key personnel away from Charleston just when they were most needed. In some cases, lack of advance travel plans hampered these efforts.

Another organization, which experienced facilities damage, operated temporarily from trailers brought into its parking lot. Hugo reinforced the importance of a fallback power-generating capability as part of a business resumption plan.

Planning Makes Perfect

Despite unanticipated problems, organizations that had disaster and business recovery plans in place with personnel who were trained to execute them came through Hugo in relatively good condition.

Just a month before Hugo, a Charleston credit union had reviewed its disaster recovery plan and arranged for a hot site with a commercial vendor. Some of the credit union’s branch offices still had power and were able to establish communications over facsimile lines to the hot site. Transactions at other branches were recorded manually and then keyed in and transmitted to the hot site, enabling them to provide customers with badly needed cash.

The credit union’s management information systems director was later quoted in the October 30, 1989, issue of MIS Week as saying that if he had not arranged the hot site contract, “we’d be dead in the water.”

Although 15 years have passed since Hugo visited Charleston, the lessons learned then remain applicable to disaster and business-resumption planning today.


Hal Hunt, is an experienced international program manager with Robbins-Gioia LLC, a program management consulting firm headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia.


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