As Hurricane Sandy approached, financial planners in New Jersey started deploying disaster plans — some of which had been in place for a year or more and some of which were hatched just last week.
“Did you unplug my printer?” planner and estate lawyer Martin Shenkman called across the office Monday to his paralegal, Thomas Tietz.
“No I did not,” Tietz called back.
“Go ahead and unplug it,” Shenkman instructed.
The two were the only people at Shenkman Law's second-floor offices in Paramus, N.J.; they had already braved heavy winds, rain and streets blocked by police to secure the workplace. As a final precaution, they unplugged all but critical equipment to protect against possible power surges.
Like other planners in the state contacted for this story, Shenkman (who is a SourceMedia contributor) already had put into place both online and offline backup systems; he installed them more than a year ago, he said, but has tweaked and updated them constantly since then. Last week, he handed out extra laptops and thumb drives containing critical client documents to his co-workers for them to use at home.
Shenkman and his colleagues had also covered critical paper files (for client work) with heavy plastic tarps, in case high winds — forecast to hit unprecedented speeds — were to blow out the office windows. At their off-site document storage facility, they pulled the crates containing documents away from windows.
“I’ve always been the boy scout,” Shenkman said Monday. “I like to be prepared.”
Lessons from Irene
Last October’s Hurricane Irene provided a dry run — make that a wet run — for planners like Shenkman. During that storm, Shenkman's home was without power for five days and without Internet access for seven. His office functioned by drawing from one power line that the utility restored in the storm’s aftermath, with a network of extension cords throughout the office to keep business humming.
All of the firm’s employees were working out of their homes for Monday, at least, Shenkman said. They can’t afford to slow down this fall, he added, because of a heavy backlog of clients wanting to transfer wealth this year, before expected tax changes in 2013.
Recently, Shenkman installed a 20-amp outlet in the firm’s server room for a large battery; he said it should keep the office systems running for four hours after a blackout and ensure a controlled shutdown of operations, if it comes to that.
Over in Westwood, N.J., meanwhile, planner Tom Orecchio of Modera Wealth Management had installed a large generator in the company’s office to keep the firm online even through an extended blackout. He said he decided to buy it after he, too, was out of power for several days during Hurricane Irene.
“Any time there is an interruption of power of more than a second, the generator turns on by itself on,” Orecchio said. “You wouldn’t even know that it happened.”
After researching generators, Orecchio said, his firm also helped about 15 clients buy their own generators to get through the storm. Modera also advised clients to buy chain saws, sump pumps, power washers and snow blowers at the same website, powerequipmentdirect.com, because of its good prices.
“On Saturday some of them called to say their new generators arrived,” Orecchio said. “It’s funny to hear people excited about a generator.”
Other Modera clients decided last week to move out of the storm’s path and flew down to Florida. The firm did some work rerouting mail to their Floridian addresses, Orecchio said.
Orecchio and his colleagues knocked off work from the office early Monday, he said, but only after printing out a critical list of client contact information and sticking it in a concrete-lined filing cabinet they refer to as “the vault.”
Shenkman says part of the reason he braved the weather to come to the office Monday was to pick a so-called “mirror” backup of the entire office operations, which was completed earlier in the day. He keeps separate backups online, through services based in other states, as well as physical backups on drives he can carry.
“With the mirror and current data I’m ready to rock and roll,” he says.
To work at home, Shenkman accesses the Web via four different companies — one for his smartphone, another for cable, as well as a Verizon 4G stick and a T-Mobile hot spot that can accommodate up to four or five other users. To connect with clients who can’t travel he uses an online service called GoToMeeting.
Communicating with clients
All planners interviewed for this story said their firms had sent out emails and other communication to clients letting them know there would be minimal disruption to business and providing them with the best means of contacting their planners.
Over at the offices of planning firm RegentAtlantic in Morristown, N.J., the firm’s chief operating officer spent the weekend shutting down servers, according to one of the firm’s wealth managers, Brian Kazanchy. Then they locked the doors and told everyone in the company to work from home.
Both Shenkman and Orecchio have vivid memories of downed trees and power lines from the storm a year ago. Felled branches covered Shenkman’s driveway up to chest height after Irene. For the next day or two, both expect that chain saws might temporarily displace computers as their tools of first resort.
“If it’s this bad now,” Shenkman says while behind the wheel Monday as wind whipped about him. “I can’t imagine how it’s going to be later.”
Marsh writes for Financial Planning, a SourceMedia publication.
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