Disasters and Social Media – Tips for Staying Connected When Your Home Office Isn’t

American author Willa Cather once wrote, “There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm.” While there is a lot of truth to this statement, disaster preparation is best tackled before catastrophe strikes. I learned this firsthand when my neighborhood was evacuated after a propane leak was discovered. Due to the summer humidity, we were kept out of our home for 48 hours. Fortunately I was able to safely shut down my home office before the utility companies turned off service throughout my neighborhood, but emergency crews made it clear that a propane explosion could level entire homes.

While I had the peace of mind knowing that a backup copy of my files existed in a cloud drive, more than once during the evacuation I was plagued by “what if” syndrome. What if I hadn’t unplugged everything? What if our dog had been trapped inside the house that entire time? What if our house caught fire or worse, had been leveled by an explosion?

Luckily we could stay in touch with friends and family through social media apps on our smartphones, and when we did return, thank goodness everything was intact. However, it was clear that there were ways that I could better prepare my home office for another potentially catastrophic situation. Here are some of the things I did, and if you work from home and haven’t done any then you may want to tackle them before disaster strikes.

Protect Your Family

Sit down with your family and make a plan. Websites like ready.gov offer a lot of great suggestions for ways your family can stay ready during an emergency – and not just in natural disasters. They also suggest ways to stay informed and build a kit to stay safe during pandemics, home fires, technology and accident hazards, and terrorist situations.

In today’s age, you can’t be too careful about protecting your family, and when your family sees that you’re serious about staying safe during catastrophic times, they’re likely to take disaster planning more serious as well. Because a disaster can strike at any time, you might also think about keeping the winter survival kit for your car ready to go regardless of the season, especially if you live in an area known for chilly summer nights.

Communicate with Your Insurance Company

Don’t wait for a disaster to get to know your insurance agent. My family’s local agent sees me each month when I stop by the office to pay my bill in person. It not only creates a professional relationship that will come in handy in the event that there is ever a reason to file a claim, but it also helps give me peace of mind. My agent knows me as a person, has met my spouse and even asks about Sammy, our spoiled rotten dog. I feel much more confident knowing that someone I have grown to trust is handling my insurance policy.

Because my homeowner’s policy covers a variety of mishaps, I’ve taken digital photographs of everything in my home. From family heirlooms and family room electronics to the contents of my home office, the pictures are stored in a separate cloud drive that I share with my insurance agent. This way everyone has a copy, and nobody is in danger of losing theirs.

Duplicate All Digital Data

This not only means the contents of your documents folder, but also things like digital copies of pictures, videos, and mp3s, and your address books. Making a copy of documents and spreadsheets in Google Docs offered a way to both make a backup copy and easily share select files with other people. Now when my accountant asks for my expense report for this year, it’s just a matter of sharing the spreadsheet I keep in Google Docs.

Services like Shutterfly and Picasa offer space to start an online photo album. Most of my photos had already been uploaded to either Facebook or Twitter, and now that’s even easier to do with Instagram, a widely popular photo app that allows you to enhance the image via your smartphone. Meanwhile, MP3tunes offered a 2GB locker where I could store my favorite iTunes, as well as access them from any web-enabled device – like the flat screen television in the family room or my smartphone.

As a person who runs my business from home, I’ve had the pleasure of being acquainted with several other people who work in a home office. One friend backed up everything except his address book before Hurricane Irene hit his home on the eastern coast of the United States. A series of power surges caused his computer to crash, sending his digital address book into never-never land. In addition to exporting my address book into a spreadsheet on Google Docs, I also keep a copy on my smartphone.

Scan Paper Copies of Important Documents

Keeping paper copies of important documents in a safe inside your home is a good idea, but it’s not foolproof. Most are only rated for a few hours of protection and not all of them are waterproof. Even if it does survive in the unlikely event that your house catches fire, the powerful streams of water blasting from fire hoses could do more damage than the smoke and flame. In addition to paperwork, you might choose to keep hard copies of software installation disks, licensing keys, and serial numbers related to your business in a safe as well.

DocScanner is an app that works with both Android and iPhones. In addition to scanning birth, marriage, and adoption records, and a copy of my homeowner’s policy, I was able to store all the documents in an email to myself that I shared in my Evernote account. This provided safe storage of digital copies in the worst case scenario that the paper documents were compromised.

Secure Passwords

More people in today’s society use the internet than ever before, which is why it’s important to use a password that’s unique. But it’s also imperative that you not use the same password for everything you do. One family member writes a blog from the point of view of her family pet. In a conversation about passwords, I correctly guessed that she probably used that same pet’s name. Now she uses a more complex password that’s an alphanumeric mix. You have to admit, “sparkles” is a lot easier to guess than “sParK1e5″. (Not her real password.)

The problem with using a different password for every program is remembering them. I have one for my business email account, my personal email account, Facebook, Twitter, my business website – that’s five passwords to remember before 9am. And trust me when I say that the amount of coffee I drink each morning is directly proportional to how easily I remember them all without looking. But when I have to look, I use the free version of RoboForm. It not only remembers my passwords and logs me into accounts as necessary, but also provides a way to print a hard copy that I store in my office safe.

Social Media during Disasters

Whether it’s Americans suffering the effects of Hurricane Irene, Australians  dealing with the Queensland Floods, or Japanese recovering from a powerful earthquake and massive tsunami, the past few years have proved that no matter where we are across the globe we’re all connected by a very common thread – social media. People who were able to connect to the internet could provide information to their family and friends in other parts of the world as well as assure them of their own well-being.

Doctor Mel Taylor of University of Western Sydney suggests that in allowing communities to share with a sympathetic audience, “social media can limit the psychological damage caused by rumors and sensationalism.” Social media was important during my situation because it allowed me use a single Twitter update to inform all of my followers, including friends, family, most of my clients and other professional associates, about the situation and when I expected to be back online.

It took a neighborhood catastrophe to open my eyes about ways to improve my home office disaster plan, but if you’re reading this then you have the advantage of taking a couple of hours now to reassess your home office for potential weak spots. In addition to online information, your insurance agent most likely can provide you with other literature about keeping your family and your home office safe during a disaster situation.

As someone who works from a home office, Duncan Morrison knows all too well the importance of keeping its contents safe during a disaster. His own experiences, such as being evacuated to higher ground in Fiji due to a tsunami warning caused by the earthquake in Japan, combined with more than 16 years in the insurance industry were the inspiration for creating www.itpaystobeprepared.com where he offers advice for staying safe in an emergency situation. When he’s not working in his home office in Edmonton, a city that’s no stranger to extreme weather conditions that can cause their own disasters, Duncan enjoys playing golf and taking his wife to the cinema.


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