How businesses can prepare for the next super storm
Last year, Hurricane Sandy devastated much of the Northeast, leaving 159 people dead and costing up to $50 billion in damages.
Businesses—and some 9 million people—were without power for weeks and in some cases months.
But Sandy's aftermath—along with the damage from storms like Hurricane Irene in 2011 and tornadoes in the Midwest this spring—is spawning renewed interest in products and services for businesses to prepare for and possibly even thrive during these disasters.
"Even though there were tools out there for businesses to use, Sandy was a wake-up call," said Jeff Ray, CEO of Ventyx, a software company that makes smart grid technology. "We've seen an uptick in the interest for our products."
Ray said his company's software helps utilities get a picture of where a power outage might happen before it occurs.
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"We can assess the risk spots for outages and help companies know what people and tools are needed to contain and fix those spots as quickly as possible," said Ray.
"We also provide ways for workers to communicate better so they know what's been done and have a more efficient work process. That's crucial when it comes to getting power back up and businesses running during storms," he said.
Nontraditional battery power
With power a key lifeline for businesses to stay open, backup sources of electricity such as generators have seen spikes in sales since events like Y2K in 1999 and up through Sandy in 2012.
But instead of using traditional ways to fuel them, one firm is pushing solar-powered batteries as an alternative.
"The problem with generators is that they need a fuel source like gasoline and diesel fuel," said Jamie Hahn, co-founder and managing director of Solis Partners, which constructs and operates solar power plants.
"But solar-powered batteries can be used for power especially when there's shortages of gasoline," Hahn said.
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Hahn admitted that solar batteries are not cheap—around $500 each—and solar panels are needed to gather the sun's energy. But he said it's a growing industry.
"Businesses are looking at solar power in a bigger way, especially after Sandy," he said.
For those looking beyond generators, there's the new vanadium flow battery.
"This can replace the generator as a source of power," said Bill Radvak, CEO of American Vanadium, the only company that makes the batteries in the U.S. and is a partner with the German firm Gildemeister, which produces them in Europe.
"Vanadium is a metal and a steel strengthener," Radvak said. "The batteries we make are weather proof, maintenance free and can provide power for up to eight hours."
American Vanadium has been in business only for two months and has yet to sell one of the batteries, said Radvak. And the batteries can be expensive, with one of the smallest units selling for $150,000 and the biggest for millions.
"We are new, but there's a tremendous amount of interest in our product, with business and governments looking for ways to prepare for events like Sandy," he said.
Businesses that offer disaster services for other businesses have used disasters like Sandy and Irene to improve their products, said David Kinlaw, an executive at Logicalis, an IT management firm with some 6,000 customers.
"We've been doing disaster recovery for nearly 15 years," Kinlaw said. "But we have worked with businesses to add improvements, based on their needs after natural disasters."
Logicalis offers data and cloud services to keep a business's technology safe and working, said Kinlaw.
"We work with companies to meet recovery time and develop plans so that employees can work from home or anywhere else, as long as they have Internet access," he said.
"One of our recent goals has been to take the pressure off workers from coming in to work when they can't because it's not safe," Kinlaw said. "They can work from home, and the company can know that all their data is secure."
Another high tech disaster service comes from Datawatch Systems—called HurricaneWatch.
"It's a two-way website that enables office managers and property owners to communicate with their workers during a severe weather event," said Sean Brown, vice president of business development at Datawatch, which has been offering products like HurricaneWatch for the last 12 years.
"We keep track of information like weather and police alerts, and [whether] a building has power and is open or not," Brown said. "It's all kept in one database and sent out to employees, and they get to send back messages on their whereabouts and safety."
"We added emergency information and sent out thousands of alerts during Sandy," Brown added.
"It's usually a case of not believing that anything bad can happen until it actually does happen."
While some products like vanadium batteries could be considered revolutionary, products for storm preparation are constantly evolving, said Juan Ribero, VP of marketing for Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based CableOrganizer.com, an online business that offers organizer products for the home and office.
"As we're based in a hurricane hot zone we know the importance of availing storm solutions beyond the basics of canned goods, batteries and radios," said Ribero.
"One of our most popular items we sell for storm preparedness is the solar chargers, the backups for personal devices," he said.
"Also popular are the Storm Ready kits that have extension cords, engine oil and fuel stabilizer to keep your generator running," Ribero added. An air- and water-tight protector case can safeguard documents and data.
As for his own business, Ribero said Hurricane Andrew in 1992 marked a turning point on being prepared.
"Our building features impact glass, and we've installed solar panels on the rooftop for emergency backup power. We also have a mirror website in reserve just in case our main server's availability is compromised," he said.
Ribero echoed what many experts say about disaster readiness: Until a disaster hits home, being prepared is taken for granted.
"It's usually a case of not believing that anything bad can happen until it actually does happen," Ribero said.
"I don't think that the people who were affected by Sandy will take an emergency situation for granted now," he said.
—By CNBC's Mark Koba.