Picture downtown Jersey City, N. J., perched next to the Hudson River, perhaps three miles across the river from downtown Manhattan’s Wall Street.  For generations, its warehouses have been low-cost places to store the many tons of paper that financial services companies still generate daily.

But downtown Jersey City is about at sea level. When Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge hit, the lower levels of the city were flooded.The low-lying areas of Manhattan below 23rd street got the same treatment. And many of the paper documents stored in those basements decayed into pulp.

The stakes are huge. It may be difficult or impossible to reopen a business without customer records, accounts receiveable details and other data. Estimates of the number of businesses that go out of business after suffering severe data loss are as high as 70%.

Some of what banks and stock brokerages do in regard to document storage is set out by regulation — those companies are under comparatively strict controls.  But, natural disasters inevitably offer a vivid proof of why it’s important to digitize records and store copies offsite.

How far offsite is an increasingly debated point. The huge impact zone of Sandy — which knocked out power and blew over trees far inland — has upped the ante.  Where before some experts thought a 200-mile distance was adequate — roughly the distance from New York to Boston or Santa Barbara to San Diego — many experts are now recommending a separation of at least 600 miles. That’s roughly the distance from San Francisco to Portland, Ore. or New York to Detroit.

As for what to store, it’s important to remember that the cost of storage keeps going down,making it increasingly cost-effective to begin digitizing a wide range of documents.

Start by deciding what will be stored and what won’t be. (Here’s more information on disaster recovery and financial services.) These choices often are dictated by federal regulators in regulated businesses.  In other businesses, good document retention starts with email, voice mail, and documents created in work-related software such as Microsoft Office. You should also consider scanning almost every piece of paper that comes into your office.

If you have too many file cabinets stuffed with folders  get started on a going forward basis by digitizing today’s paper. As time allows, you can keep chipping away at the backlog.

You may find yourself fully digitized sooner than you think….and ready to survive the next natural disaster.

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