Note: Lissa McGrath found herself on the run from Hurricane Dennis last month (see "A Plea to eBay Users from Stranded Columnist," http://www.auctionbytes.com/cab/abn/y05/m07/i11/s01.) She used the experience to write an eBay seller's survival guide to hurricanes.
There are some disasters that you cannot predict, earthquakes, family emergencies, medical problems, etc. However, there are some that do give at least some advanced warning. Hurricanes are one of these, and eBay sellers should give special attention to planning for such emergencies.
If you live in a hurricane-prone area (such as Florida or the Southern Coast of the U.S.), you should have a personal preparation and evacuation plan ready before the season begins on June 1st (the season runs through November 30th).
If you don't already have a personal plan ready, go to http://www.fema.gov/hazards/hurricanes/whatshouldido.shtm#before and follow their instructions. Educate your family about the plan and assign specific tasks to each family member before the season starts. If everyone knows what their responsibilities are, your preparations will be organized and there will be no panicked rush to get things done.
Once you know a hurricane is heading your way, it is time to start preparing your home and business. I live in the Florida pan handle. By the time a hurricane hits Cuba, I am already preparing (usually 4-5 days before impact). Remember- family comes first. Gathering your personal belongings and preparing your home are the most important things you can do right now. However, if you don't take measures to protect your business, you could return to find inventory destroyed and having to start from square one. This is not good for your family's financial situation and certainly not something you want to deal with in the aftermath of a hurricane.
#1 Make hotel reservations
This should be your first step. You can always cancel the reservations if the hurricane takes a turn, but getting last minute reservations is a nightmare. Choose an area outside the predicted path. Note: North is not always the best option. If you have a laptop, try to find a hotel that has free internet. This will allow you to contact buyers and suppliers after the hurricane has made landfall. At that time you will be better informed about the damages to your area and can predict "down-time" more accurately.
#2 Cancel auctions and ship all sold items
Cancel auctions ending in over 48 hours that don't have any bids. Email the high bidder of any that have bids and explain the situation. If you are happy with their current high bid, you can offer to cancel the auction and list a Buy-It-Now for them so you can get the item shipped before you evacuate (PayPal payment only). Or you can cancel the auction and relist it when you return. If you still have items to ship when you evacuate, take them with you and ship them away from the hurricane impact site.
#3 Do not bid on anything
Do not place any bids on auctions until the hurricane has passed and you have power restored. If you are without power when the auction ends, you cannot communicate, send payment, or even determine if you were the high bidder. Power can be out for weeks, and internet service may be out even longer. This can result in unpaid item disputes, negative feedback and the seller relisting the item. If you are currently the high bidder on any active auctions, contact the seller and ask if they want you to retract your bid, or if they are happy to wait for utility services to resume in your area before you send payment and arrange for shipping (if you win). By being up front, you are giving the seller the choice. They will most likely tell you to contact them when you have power restored.
#4 Photograph and pack inventory
Take individual photos of your items as you pack them. I recommend bubble wrapping anything valuable or fragile. Use large clear-plastic storage bins (under $10 at Wal-Mart) and make a list of the items as you put them into the box. If you need to use more than one box, make a separate list for each box, and clearly mark the box number on both the list and the box itself. You should tape a sheet of paper with your name and address to the inside of the box , viewable from the outside. This increases the chances of you getting the box back if it does float away. The photos are for before and after pictures for your insurance company. Hopefully you won't need them, but they will save a lot of hassle if you do. If you have a particularly rare or valuable item, I would suggest you take it with you if you have space. Insurance will cover damages, but unique items are hard to find and worth a little extra protection.
#5 Organize your storage room
Get everything as high off the floor as possible in a windowless room (walk-in closet works well). Duct tape around the seam of the plastic container lids to increase water protection. Take a photo of your prepared storage room (for insurance purposes) then close the door and duct tape around the door seams. You would be surprised how good duct tape is at repelling water. I have saved my ground floor carpet more than once by duct taping around my front and back doors.
#6 Take business records with you
Make sure you have business records, tax returns, insurance, transaction details, and inventory lists ready to take with you. Back up your email and back up your entire computer on to a CD. Make two copies and put them in safe places in your car and luggage. I recommend having a jump drive on hand (staples.com $20) to backup last minute information (also useful for transferring data to your laptop so you can work from your hotel.)
#7 Contact suppliers and pay upcoming bills
Email your suppliers and let them know you are under a hurricane warning and will likely be without power shortly and it may be a few weeks before you are up and running again. Ask them to be patient with you during that time, and pay your bills that will become due in the next 2-3 weeks.
#8 Setup your email
Contact your email/ hosting company and ask if they have web-mail capabilities. If so, make sure you have the log-in information for your account. This will enable to you access email through the internet (from wherever you are). Also, find out if you can set up an auto-responder that will work if your computer is turned off. If you can, set one up to inform the email sender that you are unable to access your email at present due to Hurricane (insert name) but will contact them as soon as power and internet service are restored. It is worth offering a no-questions asked money back guarantee for all buyers. Ask them to please be patient until you have power restored and can resolve their issue. This may help prevent a negative feedback for "lack of communication."
You should also get an AOL or MSN free trial CD (Wal-Mart has them). Load this onto your laptop/ main computer before you leave. This will enable you to get internet access through dial-up even when other internet services are still down.
#9 Prepare your warehouse space
If you have a warehouse, you need to take lots of photos, and get items off the floor. Pack items that could be easily damaged as suggested for your storage room. Try to hide expensive items and make your inventory look less valuable if possible. (Unfortunately, there are looters who will take advantage of the deserted streets.) If you don't have storm shutters, nail plywood over windows and doors. And set your alarm before you leave.
#10 Evacuate in plenty of time
Get out of town at least 48 hours before a hurricane impact. If you wait any longer, you will get stuck in traffic and you do not want to be on the road when a hurricane hits. I usually evacuate to Birmingham, AL which is normally a 3-4 hour drive. During a hurricane evacuation (48 hours to go) it takes 7-11 hours.
When you return, secure your home and warehouse. Take photos of damaged items immediately and make sure you have listed the value of each item on your inventory list. If you did your preparation properly, you will have done everything possible to protect your business and minimize damages. If necessary, now is the time to contact your insurance company.