When Hurricane Sandy pounded the East Coast in 2012, its fury impaired the economy as much as the landscape, causing nearly $50 billion in damage.
Most businesses in the New York and New Jersey area had to shut down and ride out the storm. Even if they didn’t sustain any direct damage, many were without power for days, if not weeks.
How would your company fare if disaster struck? How long would it take to reopen for business after a hurricane, tornado or flood?
That depends on whether companies have a workplace disaster plan, said Samuel Boyle, senior planner at Boyle Safety and Security Solutions, a Chicago company that helps other companies deal with natural disaster. Boyle trains business owners in creating a plan that will help companies stay safe during a disaster and bounce back quickly if damage occurs.
Being prepared in advance is the key, but Boyle estimated that 65 percent of companies don’t have a disaster plan. If companies aren’t prepared, it may take days or weeks to regroup and reopen. “Time lost is money lost,” Boyle said.
What should talent managers consider when creating a disaster plan? Boyle recommends these basics.
Look over your policy to determine what kind of disaster damage is covered.
“One big thing to look for is flood insurance,” Boyle said. “Normally, it’s not included. And if you’re a small business without it, and you get flooded out, it could mean the difference between reopening and closing for good.”
How do you store your vital records? Boyle recommended “hybridizing” your storage method. “Store your data on iCloud in cyberspace, but also have a physical copy of those records on either a flash drive or on paper,” he said.
That’s because power might be out, potentially cutting out Internet access. But if you’ve got a physical copy of client files or payroll information, you can remain open for business.
This means equipment that will help you get your business up and running quickly after a disaster. What sort of equipment depends on the type of business. Think about what will be needed to open the doors if the power and phone lines are out, or if there’s no access to fresh water.
Boyle said having a generator can go a long way toward normalizing operations, especially if the damage to the area is widespread. That’s because cities, states and even the Federal Emergency Management Agency focus on critical businesses and infrastructure first— getting electricity and water to hospitals, gas stations, grocery stores and the like.
When snow and ice shut down much of the Atlanta area last year, thousands of people who hadn’t left work early in anticipation of the storm were trapped in their workplaces, some for up to three days. Vending machines can only last so far in these situations. Boyle recommended putting together a preparedness kit that includes nonperishable food, water, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather radio, spare batteries, flashlights and blankets.
“Plan on the amount of supplies that will cover all of your employees for 72 hours,” he said.
Training your employee on what to do if disaster strikes is a critical component to your disaster plan, Boyle said. Having a generator and water is good, but if your employees don’t know what to do, you could be facing a chaotic situation.
“Your employees are your best asset,” Boyle said. “Have periodic training sessions on what to do if a tornado or other disaster strikes and also explain how you’re going to alert them about a potentially dangerous weather situation that they’ll need to respond to.”
Employees will need to know a safe place to shelter in the workplace during a storm, where the supplies are, and even what to do if a disaster strikes after work — do they come in the next day? Wait for word from you on the condition of the workplace?
Also, encourage employees to bring their own supplies — a pair of comfortable shoes and clothing they can stash somewhere in the office should be on the top of that list. Employees will be glad to have their comfortable shoes rather than high heels, or a pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt to slip into instead a suit.
The Waffle House Index
When FEMA goes into an area that’s been hit by a natural disaster, it assesses the severity of the situation in a couple of different ways. One of them is the Waffle House Index.
That’s because the well-known breakfast chain has a legendary disaster response plan designed to get their restaurants open for business quickly after a disaster strikes.
It includes three levels. Green means they’re up and running at full speed. Yellow means they have limited menu items but can still be open to serve something. Red means the doors are closed — and FEMA knows it’s got its hands full.
Waffle House Inc. has some 1,600 restaurants in hurricane-prone areas like the mid-Atlantic and Gulf Coast, and when those storms strike, they’re ready for action.
It all started after Katrina hit in 2005, when 100 of its restaurants shut down and seven more were destroyed. Company executives knew they had to ramp up their response capability. Their system includes detailed instructions for reopening, including what to serve under different conditions.
An important part of the process is spelling out which menu items to serve so that corporate can get the necessary ingredients to the affected stores.
“The plan is a lot of preparation and then showing up to react to the situation,” said Pat Warner, Waffle House’s vice president of communications and a member of its crisis management team. “We do a lot of preparation before hurricane season and as a storm approaches to ensure we have the resources in the right places so they can roll into the area right after the storm passes.”
When Warner says “roll in,” he means it. Waffle House has a mobile command center — a tricked-out RV — the team drives to disaster sites. They’ve got generators, water and other equipment designed to get those stores up and running.
Waffle House doesn’t have a full-time crisis management team. All of its employees, like Warner, have other jobs. But the team springs into action immediately when disaster strikes.
“Each spring, we go over the crisis response plan both in the field and at the corporate office,” Warner said. “We review our procedures and roles so we are ready for hurricane season. Our operations teams also go over the protocols and roles in the field by having meetings and follow-up discussions if a storm is imminent.”
For Warner, the biggest part of it is speed.
“Many companies choose to wait days, weeks and, sometimes, months to resume business after a storm,” Warner said. “We take a different approach by showing up to get our restaurants open as fast as we can. It’s a major investment to have the response at the level we have. However that investment pays off when we see how we can impact a community by opening up and serving our customers quickly after a storm.”