Preparing Your Site for a Natural Disaster

June 1st marks the beginning of hurricane season for the east coast of the United States and the Gulf of Mexico. As a New Orleanian, this day means a lot of things to me. It’s a chance to check and make sure my insurance information is up-to-date, a chance to catalog my personal items, to make sure my vehicles are in working order and have my evacuation plans at the ready.

However, it is also a good opportunity to make sure that you are able to continue to manage your sites while uprooted unexpectedly. Because, while we often make plans for recovering from a disaster to our server or our host we often forget that we are an integral part of our site and an element that can be displaced.

Far too many of us take for granted our home/work computers and Web access and find ourselves struggling to maintain and manage our sites without them. However, whether it is something as simple as a long-term Web outage or something as drastic as a natural disaster, we need to be prepared to do without.

So, with that in mind, here are five steps you need to take to ensure that your sites can function even if something were to happen to you and you had work on our site without the comforts of home.

Step 1: Keep Your Passwords Handy

The first step to any good disaster preparedness for the Web is to grab a sizable and portable USB thumb drive. Typically you can find one with 2 or more GB for about $10 and they are an invaluable tool for computing while on the go.

The first thing you should put on there is an encrypted file with all of your passwords, this can be done many different ways but you should ensure that you have access to your passwords offline and online, just in case you find yourself with a computer but no Web access and need to grant access to someone else to help you.

Personally, I use LastPass to keep my passwords and have a portable version of Google Chrome on a flash drive with the LastPass extension installed. This gives me portable access to my passwords at any time. However, I also keep an exported copy of my password database on an encrypted file on the flash drive just in case.

Any password management system will work or simply using the encrypted file will be fine. The important thing though is to have all of your passwords handy, even if you’re not at your current system to remember them for you.

Also, be sure to include passwords for your Twitter accounts, email accounts and other, related services that you use in conjunction to your Web backend.

Step 2: Use Portable Apps

There are certain applications that you need to run your site. They include, depending on what you use, a Web browser, an FTP client, an SSH client, instant messaging, Twitter client and a blogging or email client. It is important that all of these apps be on your flash drive and ready to roll at a moment’s notice.

PortableApps is a simple and free collection of open-source and freeware apps to fill this need. It includes an installer that you place on your thumb drive and a variety of apps to run off of it. Each of the apps will run exclusively off of your thumb drive and none will leave anything on the host computer, great for use on a public or shared system.

Best of all, you’ll most likely have the apps and tools that are most familiar to you, rather than learning a new environment. This will let you hit the ground running while you’re on the move.

It only takes a few minutes to set up a flash drive with PortableApps and that time can save you hours of catchup in a disaster situation, making it well worth the effort.

Step 3: Think Mobile Too

In a disaster, as I found out myself, there are many situations where you may have cell phone access but not Web access. Though you obviously can’t do everything you would do on a large computer from your phone, you can do a great deal, especially if you set up your Twitter and Facebook accounts to post via text messaging.

Even if you never use this feature, having the ability to update your various social networks via text message can be a huge asset and let you get out important information when it wouldn’t otherwise be possible.

Likewise, if you have a smart phone, you can install the correct applications and do at least some management of your blog and perhaps even your server via your cell phone. Automattic, for example has both Blackberry and iPhone apps for managing WordPress.

You might not be able to do everything, but you might be able to do enough to keep your readers up to date on what is happening and address any emergencies that arise while you’re dealing with an emergency of your own.

Step 4: Secure Your Own Access

Speaking of mobile access, cell phone companies now offer relatively inexpensive mobile broadband cards for computers and reasonably-priced plans for them. Though getting a full contract for emergency situations may be a bit extreme, buying a unit and securing month-to-month contracts can be a savior if you find yourself uprooted.

If that fails, learn locations nearby that offer WiFi or public computers for use. You can usually find this information trivially online, AT&T offers a great map for their WiFi spots, and you should look for locations both locally and at your intended evacuation destination, so you won’t have to search when you arrive.

Having access handy or knowing where to find it is crucial to recovering from a sudden uprooting and can prove invaluable not just for getting your sites back online and updated, but also for getting your life back together too.

Step 5: Give Access to a Trusted Person

Finally, to cover the worst-case scenario, you should also give access to your sites and to all of your passwords to a trusted third party. Ideally, this should not be someone who will likely be caught up in any disaster situation with you, such as a spouse, but should be knowledgeable about how to manage your sites and take care of any updates, changes or announcements that need to be made.

This can be very difficult to do but treat your passwords the same as your house key and only give them to someone you would trust with that level of access.

Another option, in this case, is to give a copy of the information to an attorney or a less-knowledgeable third party for safe keeping until such a time that they need to pass along that information to someone who can use it.

Though no one likes to think about being incapacitated or dying, it is an unfortunate part of disaster preparedness for both you those closest to you and those who read/visit your sites.

Bottom Line

The important thing to remember is that, though some disasters have times of the year that they can only happen in, most do not. Disasters, large and small, can strike at any time and it is important to be prepared and that preparedness includes making sure that your sites can be maintained should something happens.

Fortunately, the key steps to make sure you are ready for such an event only take a few minutes and can save hours, even days of headache down the road. As a veteran of several hurricane evacuations, I can say with confidence that being prepared and thinking in advance has made a great deal of difference in my ability to fix problems and govern my sites when on the move.

If you take the time now, you will not regret it. Being smart about your sites, the same as you would any other property you own, can go a long way to making a very difficult time in your life that much easier.

After all, you’re already dealing with whatever uprooted you so suddenly, the last thing you need is the added stress of worrying about your sites.

(Thanks to Elnias for the image)

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