Alaska had a 7.0 earthquake on Friday, November 30th.  It devastated the region.  Major roads simply collapsed, cutting off many communities.  Luckily there were 0 deaths and only a few minor injuries.  Alaska had taken to heart what it learned from the last major earthquake over fifty years ago.

What is amazing is that in under a week many of the major highways and roads had already been repaired.  It was a phenomenal response to a devastating event.  In looking at what the state of Alaska did after the earthquake, I believe we can draw some parallels to how every organization needs to plan for worst-case scenarios in order to be back up and running in short order.

Collapsed Highway in Alaskan Earthquake by Alaska DOT&PFAlaska Highway repair by Alaska DOT&PF

The following are some of the steps that the Alaskan government enacted to quickly fix the roads that are the lifelines of its communities.

  • First and foremost, Alaska recognized the risk and created a plan for it. Any good disaster recovery plan includes identifying the risk, determining its impact, and then finding a way to potentially mitigate or deal with the event.

  • Alaska had just recently updated its recovery plans following an event where a truck slammed into a bridge on the only major road connecting Anchorage to one of its suburbs.

  • A team focused on identifying bridges at risk were on a plane that night and by midnight were checking all 243 bridges.

  • Teams geared up to work 24/7 to fix the damage. In this case, breaking down the asphalt, saving it for later use, and beginning to bring in fresh material.

  • The asphalt plants had shut down for winter. After the earthquake they all turned on their heaters to start to warm up the asphalt, a necessary step in order to spread it across the road.  The asphalt was ready exactly when it was needed.  Its important to note that this was the first time ever that paving occurred in winter.

  • A temporary work around was found for the normal road paint that was used to ensure that the lines could still be painted.

  • Because of the ongoing aftershocks, that were so bad they were inducing sea sickness in people, some of the already completed repairs had to be redone.

  • Plans were put in place for post-disaster follow up to create permanent fixes. For Alaska, that means spring time.

I think the best quote is one from Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz in which he states “People pulled together.  We followed the plans that were in place.  We looked after one another.” (source: AP).  There are still many issues to resolve but they utilized a prioritized approach to fix high impact damage first.

Disaster Lessons for IT

The lessons that I took away from Alaska’s disaster response were the following:

  • Identify what type of disasters might occur and have a detailed step by step plan on how your organization would respond to that disaster.

  • Keep those plans updated. This is not a once and done event.  Always be looking for ways to improve your disaster plans.

  • Have a team ready to immediately respond.

  • Know your assets and what you need to do to check on them. Determine what the priority of fixes are and ensure everyone knows it.

  • Develop response teams before disaster strikes so that they know what to do and how to do it. Take care of your people at the same time to ensure you don’t burn them out.

  • If a step doesn’t work, find a short-term work around to make it work.  Be prepared to be innovative.

  • Keep monitoring for any other issues that may pop up.

  • Get everything working but plan to return and completely fix everything at a later point in time. Your focus is getting back to business first.

  • Update those disaster plans again. And again. And again.

Following these steps will help you minimize the downtime for your organization.  It may very well be the difference between a full recovery or a crippled business leading to a potential business failure.

I’ll leave this article with a final thought.  If all of your systems went down right now, what would you do?  Would you recover as quickly as Alaska has?  If you are unsure, you’ve got some planning to do.

Images of Alaskan earthquake and recovery by Alaska DOT&PF.