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Lessons Learned: Past Disasters Have Prepared Solution Providers For Hurricane Florence

Solution providers preparing for the massive winds and flooding almost sure to come when Hurricane Florence hits the Carolinas this week are drawing from past hurricane experience to make sure their customers’ IT infrastructure survives the blow.

As Hurricane Florence bears down on the eastern U.S. seaboard, solution providers are busy applying lessons learned from previous disasters including 2016’s Hurricane Matthew and 1996’s Hurricane Fran to mitigate the impact on their customers' and their own businesses.

Hurricane Florence (pictured), currently a Category 4 hurricane, is expected to make landfall Thursday in North or South Carolina. Hurricane warnings are in effect in large parts of the coastal area of the two states, with Virginia likely to receive strong winds and rain. Mandatory evacuations and school closings are already in place in many areas given the threat to life from the high winds and massive flooding expected.

Because of the expected intensity of Hurricane Florence, heavy flooding, wind damage and power outages are all but guaranteed to disrupt the lives of millions in the area.

[Related: Silicon Valley: One Earthquake Away From IT Disaster?]

However, businesses have learned lessons from past events that have better prepared them for the impact.

Robby Hill, founder and CEO of HillSouth, a Florence, S.C.-based managed services provider, remembers how much Hurricane Matthew taught him about being prepared.

"During Matthew, we found we didn't have enough backup power for our office buiilding," Hill told CRN. "Since then, we have implemented and tested our power. After Matthew, we were stuck with portable generators. Now we have one installed in our building. Matthew tested us. We were out of power for a week."

Other lessons learned from Matthew include understanding how critical cellphones are after a disaster, Hill said. "We've helped clients implement cellphone modems to maintain contact," he said.

Also important is being flexible in regard to return-to-work dates, Hill said. "Not everyone can return to work at the same time because of all the damage to the community," he said.

The cloud has also turned out to be a big part of the resiliency needed to get maintain or return to operations during and after a hurricane, Hill said.

"After Matthew, we actually learned we were hosting ConnectWise in our building without realizing the ConnectWise database was inaccessible," he said. "After Matthew, we moved it to the cloud. On a side note, it saved us money by moving to the cloud."

With Florence on the horizon, HillSouth has reached out to its customers, 80 percent of which are in the health-care field with an average of three to five locations each, to remind them to get ready, Hill said.

First, he said, customers were told that if they had issues to use the after-hours hotline any time and to keep the number handy in case things get hectic. Second, he said HillSouth reminded customers that keeping staff on-hand after the hurricane is difficult, and they should use email when possible to cut back on phone calls and remember that people may not always call in from their normal phone numbers. Third, he said, HillSouth has tested its own backup power to better ensure customers stay up if at all possible.

The notices have already had an impact, Hill said.

"We noticed a lot of our service tickets now come from customers who either want to know how safely to close shop early during the storm and to test their cellphone backups," he said. "Our governor ordered half of South Carolina's schools to close starting Thursday, and many businesses take that as a cue to close as well."

Matt Darlington, cloud and data center transformation architect at Insight, a Tempe, Ariz.-based solution provider, is sitting in the path of Hurricane Florence from his home just east of Raleigh, N.C., and has done what he can to prepare based on his experience with the wind and rain from Hurricane Fran.

Wind and rain will be the bane of those who do not prepare, Darlington told CRN.

Raleigh is known as the City of Oaks for the beautiful trees that fill the area, he said. However, unlike pine trees with their deep roots, oak trees have shallow roots that, after days of being saturated by rain and battered by winds, are susceptible to falling and tearing down buildings and power lines, he said.

"A lot of the damage we'll get will be from the trees," he said. "During Fran, I actually got a pine cone through my windshield. We lost power for 10 days."

While Darlington lives a two-hour drive from the coast, he is expecting 10 inches of rain from Hurricane Florence. "So we're going to have flooding and power outages," he said "Most people are prepared with food and so on. We know if the water lines are cut that we won't be able to flush toilets, so we fill up our bathtubs."

Most businesses are prepared, with those needing generators having them installed and smaller companies that can't afford the infrastructure heavily invested in the cloud, Darlington said.

"But there are still a lot of mom and pops without sufficient backup IT or power," he said. "They will revert to pen and paper."

Darlington said one of his largest customers, with its main office in Durham, N.C., about two and a half to three hours from the coast, has already started a "graceful" shutdown of its IT operations, and will work with Insight to go back online when it is safe to do so.

"They have generators with a 72-hour capacity, plus 48 extra hours of capacity under contract with fuel providers," he said. "But they know if they stay open during Florence, it's dangerous for those employees who would need to be on-site. So they want to make sure everything is safe before asking their people to come back. They'll use their generators if needed, after everything is safe."

Other companies, such as hospitals or nursing homes, have to be online during the storm, and they will keep at least a skeleton crew on duty with personnel staying in a local hotel or on-premises, Darlington said.

Insight is a well-organized organization, and has reached out to all customers in the hurricane zone to remind them of things to do and how to reach help if needed, Darlington said.

"And people around here know what to do," he said. "We have experience, and know how to go into action. The great thing about this state and this region is community. You think you're alone, but you're not."

Preparation is key to both business and personal safety, said Mike Carter, founder and principal at eGroup, a Mt. Pleasant, S.C.-based solution provider located right on the coast in the path of Hurricane Florence.

"eGroup about a decade ago designed disaster recovery and business continuity plans with consultants to cover everything from storms to workplace violence," Carter told CRN. "A big part of that plan was moving systems from the coast to inland co-location centers. A lot of our operations have shifted to Microsoft Azure. We say, ‘Work is what we do and not where we go.’"

eGroup's personnel all use mobile PCs and have portable backups, and the solution provider is heavily invested in hybrid clouds so its people can work off-premises as easily as if they were on-premises, Carter said.

"It's important to think about the things that might happen," he said. "Right now, we want people to be thinking about their families' safety. We don't want them to be thinking of the data and the equipment."

eGroup sends a yearly notice to customers to remind them to be continually thinking about backups and resilience even when no hurricane is bearing down, Carter said. "And as a storm is coming, we remind customers to be prepared, and let them know we're here to provide support when needed," he said.

To prepare for Hurricane Florence, eGroup has already modified its call schedule to reduce things like sales calls and move people to customer support, Carter said. The solution provider has also shifted its remote support and management from its Charleston, S.C., office to Washington D.C., and has started shifting delivery schedules into next week, he said.

eGroup's personnel already make heavy use of Skype and Microsoft Teams to keep its teams together on a regular basis, and in essence are practicing for disasters all the time. Most will be in areas with power and Wi-Fi, and can continue to service customers, he said

"They physical office is not as important as it used to be," he said. "Wherever two of our people get together, that's an office."

While Arden, N.C.-based ETS Networks is in the mountains far from the coast, Ed Tatsch, president of the solution provider, said his area is expecting 20 inches of rain and lots of strong wind.

"We've been hit by the tail end of big storms before, with rain on top of rain," Tatsch told CRN. "We expect power outages and massive flooding."

ETS Networks is making sure its employees have enough food and water handy, and sandbags if needed, Tatsch said. For the company, it does regular checking and rechecking of backups and restores to make sure databases and files remain accessible and virtual drives will mount as expected, he said.

Because its building could close in case of a flood, the solution provider has moved much of its operations to the cloud, including working with SolarWinds MSP to make sure images can be spun up in the cloud, he said.

Hill said that Hurricane Matthew was tough on the community and his customers, but it was also a learning experience.

"I remember with Matthew feeling helpless, feeling that it will take a long time to repair everything," he said. "I've now learned patience, and that we will recover. I've learned this is the price to be paid for living near an ocean."

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