Creating a Tornado Disaster Plan: What to Consider in Your Business Continuity Planning

Tornados are extreme weather events characterized by funnels of wind that can exceed 100 MPH. They usually travel no more than a few miles before dissipating and are about 250 feet in diameter. They can, however, be much wider and travel much further. Under the right conditions, multiple tornadoes can form in a single given region. The same storm cells that cause tornados can also bring intense hail and/or lightning.

Potential Impact

Tornados are extremely destructive in a relatively narrow swath. They also tend to pass quickly. So while the structure in which a business is located can suffer intense damage — or even complete destruction — broader regional infrastructure for transportation and communications usually remains functional.

Risk Factors

About 1,000 tornadoes form in the U.S. every year — although many of those do so without threatening property or people. The vast majority of tornadoes occur in the Great Plains colloquially known as “Tornado Alley.” However, tornadoes and extreme storms can occur in other parts of the country as well.

Warning Times

The National Weather Service issues tornado watches and warnings. Warnings are issued when a tornado is spotted or indicated by radar and, on average, provides around 15 minutes advance notice of impact.

Technology Continuity

Any business in the path of a tornado will have to prepare for the complete destruction of their technology infrastructure. This means:

  • Complete, fully up-to-date off-site backups for data, applications, and server images.
  • On-demand availability of failover IT infrastructure in the cloud or at an alternative facility.
  • On-demand availability of failover voice/fax call switching, such as a hosted PBX service.

As with other disaster, businesses in tornado-prone areas should also be prepared to use their website to continuously update customers about disaster impact and disaster recovery progress.

People Continuity

Businesses operating in areas susceptible to tornadoes should the following steps to ensure the safety of employees and other stakeholders (customers, suppliers) who may be on-premises when a tornado strikes:

  • Designate a tornado shelter. The best shelter is usually in an interior room in the lowest possible floor — away from doors, windows, corners, debris, etc. Make sure all employees know where this shelter is.
  • Prepare a tornado survival kit that includes food, water, flashlight, extra batteries, etc.
  • If pre-tornado weather conditions exist before work or before a shift, have people work from home wherever practical.
  • Assign one or two employees to continuously monitor weather alerts for as long as such conditions persist. Do not count on this “just happening.”
  • Ensure that all employees and site visitors know exactly where the closest shelter is and what the alert will be.
  • Encourage any site visitor who might be planning to leave the site while tornado conditions persist to remain there until the present threat has passed.
  • Have a system in place to track both who is in the building and who is in the designated shelter.

Process Continuity

Because tornadoes can have catastrophic impacts on physical facilities, businesses must plan ahead for an alternative way to carry out everyday processes such as answering phones, processing orders, issuing invoices, signing checks, etc. Also, as with other types of disasters, businesses must pro-actively communicate with stakeholders the potential for a disruption and the steps being taken to avoid that disruption.

Unlike other types of disasters, a tornado can completely devastate businesses and homes on one block while leaving those on another completely unscathed. For this reason, businesses in tornado-prone areas may also want to consider what their planned role will be in helping affected customers, neighboring businesses, and the community in general to recover from a tornado even if they are not directly affected.

Insurance Considerations

Commercial property insurance typically covers any structural damage caused by a tornado. Business interruption insurance, however, is necessary to cover both recovery costs and loss of earnings until operations can resume. Companies should be wary of “anti-concurrent causation” clauses in their existing policies that can give insurers grounds to deny a claim if damage that occurred during a tornado can be attributed to an ancillary cause.