Preparing for Disaster

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Hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, wildfires, floods, pandemics. There was a time when the possibility of experiencing such disasters might have seemed remote. Hurricane Katrina woke us up to our vulnerability.

A disaster, as defined in the Encarta World English Dictionary, is “an event that causes serious loss, destruction, hardship, unhappiness or death.” This is more than a mere emergency, “an unexpected and sudden event that must be dealt with urgently.” Planning ahead for a disaster involves anticipating emergencies that disasters bring in their wake, such as power outages. Yet it’s a far more comprehensive process than purchasing a back-up generator.

The sheer scale of the devastation wrought by Katrina shows that we must plan not only for the temporary incapacity of the business but also of the infrastructure it depends on. Failure to prepare for a disaster could shut down your co-op for an extended period, threatening its existence. And remember, many disasters arrive with less warning than a hurricane.

As stewards of the owners’ assets, the board of directors should ensure through setting policy and monitoring compliance that management is taking effective steps for disaster preparedness. The rest of this article is directed toward co-op managers to aid them in this effort.

Getting started

A disaster preparedness plan should establish the following priorities:

  • Protect human life.
  • Minimize risk of injury.
  • Protect the physical assets of the co-op, including data (such as financial records, databases, personnel files, insurance documents, copies of signed contracts, proof of ownership, proof of loss documents)
  • Resume normal operations as soon as possible.

From the Department of Homeland Security’s ready.gov website you can download the Sample Business Continuity and Disaster Preparedness Plan, which will walk you through how to create you own plan. In addition, you can download forms for an evacuation plan and a shelter-in-place plan. Another resource is the Institute for Business and Home Safety’s “Open for Business: A Disaster Planning Toolkit for the Small to Mid-Sized Business Owner.”

Experts on disaster preparedness advise setting up a cross-functional response team to develop the plan, coordinate practice exercises, and put the plan into action if the need arises. At Ever’man Natural Foods Co-op in Pensacola, Florida, all eight members of the management team are part of the disaster team. General Manager John Russo assigns team members multiple back-up responsibilities, pointing out, “They could be your most reliable employees, but if they live in a mandatory evacuation zone, they can’t get to your store.” For co-ops with multiple stores, each site should have its own response team. Although planning should be coordinated among sites, in a disaster they may be cut off from each other.

Developing a support network

Before a disaster strikes, build and maintain relationships with local law enforcement, county emergency management agencies, neighboring businesses, vendors, even roofers and refrigerator repair companies.

Local government: At a presentation to the Consumer Cooperative Management Association, William Alford of International Lighthouse Group advised co-ops to contact the emergency preparedness division of their state or county, and ask to become part of the regional plan. As a food provider to the community, your co-op could be considered a critical responder. This could mean that limited power supplies would be allotted to your store, vendor trucks would be allowed to get through to you, and your product might not be commandeered. Consider that after Katrina, trucks bound for supermarkets with food and water were turned away.

Ever’man Co-op has found it valuable to establish a relationship with the health department. When hurricanes cause extensive flooding, health officials “assume all our water isn’t potable and has to be tested,” explains Russo. To get the health department to prioritize reopening the co-op, “you have to let them know you’re a community service yourself.”

Forging a relationship with local law enforcement might help your employees get to the store despite curfews. In Pensacola after Hurricane Ivan, there was a curfew in effect for several weeks. Before the storm, the human resources department of the Pensacola News Journal obtained passes from the sheriff so that employees with a business need could travel. According to HR manager Linda Wheeler, quoted in HR Magazine, “We may not have been able to get this type of assistance quickly following the storm because law enforcement is otherwise occupied. We secured the commitment and permission and signature each year as part of our hurricane preparedness protocols.”

Neighboring businesses: If you share a building or city block or strip mall with other businesses, it makes sense to coordinate disaster preparedness planning with them. They may have expertise or crucial supplies to share. Joint efforts to protect a building can only help your own business. If an emergency evacuation is ever called for, you could avoid gridlock and loss of precious time. Even better, practice evacuation drills together.

Vendors: Make sure your vendors have back-up plans themselves. If hurricanes are heading your way, Russo advises contacting distributors and setting up alternate scenarios depending on the extent of the damage. “From UNFI we get staples in advance [of the storm] and cancel orders of perishables. Then afterwards we instruct them on what to ship: business as usual, or key nonperishables only or key perishables.” Russo also suggests calling all distributors. “People based 100 miles away might not have a clue about the damage. You could get an unexpected delivery and not get others.”

Local services: Developing personal relationships in advance can help when you need vital repairs or supplies. Russo says, “We contact all our utilities, suppliers, roofers, and refrigerator repair people and get on their list in advance so they’ll come to our store.” Sometimes this requires making a deposit with a roofer, an investment that pays off big if needed.

Communications plan with built-in redundancies: Many businesses hit by Hurricane Katrina had disaster plans in place, but no one was prepared for communications systems to be inoperable over a vast region. Now experts counsel using multiple communications channels in the expectation that many might not work when you need them:

Direct dial-out landlines not connected with the computer or digital phone systems: when the power goes out, those landlines can work without electricity.

Text messaging: Due to its low bandwidth, you can get through by this method when voice connections and email can’t.

Two-way pagers: Another low bandwidth user.

800 number with voice mailbox: This can be designated to ring anywhere. Employees who find a working phone can call in to receive information and leave messages. Sometimes long-distance service still works though local service is out. Distribute the 800 number on laminated wallet cards.

Satellite phones: Reported to be expensive and not always reliable. Test reception before investing in them.

Website: For staff and members who can get Internet access, your website can disseminate and receive information. A remote server outside the area of disaster damage could be a huge asset.

Email: Get personal e-mail addresses for employees, in case they can get online.

Radio stations: In Pensacola, certain stations have managed to stay on the air throughout hurricanes. Ever’man Co-op chose three stations and tells its staff and customers to listen to those for public service announcements about the co-op.

Ham radio: This old-tech channel turned out to be most reliable of all after Katrina. Find out if any of your members have operating licenses and agree in advance to use their services.

In-person: Russo advises mapping out where each employee lives so you could go to his or her home if necessary.

On-site bulletin board: Ever’man secures grease pencils to the store window for staff to communicate with each other and customers who come by the store.

Employee contact information: Employers caught up in the hurricanes of 2005 reported that their greatest anxiety was their inability to contact their employees to find out who needed help and who could give help. Carefully constructed phone trees were useless when one key person on the tree had no phone or email access. Get multiple contact numbers from employees, including emergency contacts. Russo suggests getting neighbor’s numbers, too. Keep electronic and paper copies of this information in a secure off-site location, backed up on the Internet and in the possession of all response team members, with updates distributed whenever emergency contact information changes.

In a situation where some employees will be evacuating the area, have them sign a form and get phone numbers for where they will be going. At Ever’man Co-op, management puts together a confirmed list of who is going to evacuate and who is not, and who has family to take care of.

In communicating with your staff and member-owners, consider this advice from Dione Heusel, vice president of human resources for a New Orleans restaurant chain: “In times of crisis, comprehension goes down, so you have to keep repeating the same message, you can’t deviate from the message, and your scope has to be very narrow. We tried to include too much information at first and people weren’t grasping what they were being told.”

Taking care of your staff

Once you’ve accounted for your staff, what will they need? By planning ahead you can provide for their safety, compensation, and other resources.

Safety first: The National Safety Council website (see sidebar, page 22) offers links to information on worker safety and health hazards caused by disasters. Be sure to include protective clothing, gloves, and masks in your emergency supply kits.

Access to cash: With widespread power outages, banks may be closed and ATMs nonfunctional. Post-Katrina, many businesses found their employees’ most desperate need was for ready cash. Those who had been evacuated had difficulty cashing checks in unfamiliar locations. Now these businesses say they are actively encouraging their workforce to sign up for direct deposit to avoid this problem in the future. In preparation for hurricanes, Ever’man Co-op takes out extra cash in small denominations as an emergency fund for staff.

Pay and benefits arrangements: The Society for Human Resources Management’s disaster preparedness checklist advises making alternate plans for payroll processing if systems are down, for distributing checks to employees, and for paying vendors for monthly premiums on benefits plans if the business is closed.

In his CCMA presentation William Alford urged his audience to think ahead and create personnel policies to address disasters:

  • If employees are evacuated and not available to work, do you still pay them?
  • If the store is closed, do you continue to pay all your employees, and for how long?

Employee Assistance Programs: An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is run by a third-party provider to assist in the identification and resolution of productivity problems associated with employees’ personal concerns, such as family, financial, alcohol, drug, legal, and emotional issues. If your co-op does not already have an EAP, research the options for this low-cost benefit—typically $20–25 per employee per year. While an EAP offers value under normal circumstances, once a disaster occurs it can provide information on where to seek shelter, how to access Red Cross and government benefits, and even what to do with pets. In addition, EAPs offer counseling to employees affected by trauma and loss.

Personal preparedness: Encourage your staff to put together a home emergency supply kit and family emergency plan. Having these at home, staff will be that much better able to help the co-op. At Ever’man all employees are urged to take care of their personal needs and those of their families before showing up to work. Sometimes the co-op can share supplies such as tarps and plywood with employees. Some employees may need child care, and some coworkers’ greatest contribution could be to provide it.

Are you insured?

“Every year before hurricane season I meet with our agent to go over our policies,” says Russo. “Things are changing rapidly here in Florida. Spoilage used to be included (with a $7,000 deductible), but now it isn’t. Now our generator pays for itself.”

Alford also advises looking at policy exclusions and asking your insurer what it would cost to cover them. Typically, business interruption insurance is not applicable in the event of flooding, and if your building is damaged by flood, your insurance won’t cover anything even if other damage was caused by wind or other factors. Moreover, it could be the building owner who gets the benefit from an insurance claim, not the business leasing the building.

The Homeland Security website has a downloadable insurance coverage discussion form which could help guide a conversation with your agent.

Since insurers will want documentation of damage, disposable cameras, solar-powered calculators and forms for recording damage should all be part of your disaster preparedness kit.

Put your plan into practice

“A plan should not undergo its first test during a crisis. No matter how carefully crafted it is, the plan will probably reveal deficiencies during practice. A rehearsal will also provide employees with valuable training,” says Suzanne Taylor, Workplace Health and Safety Committee, Society for Human Resources Management.

Even if it may cost you some lost sales, try conducting an evacuation drill once a year. The difference between reading about how to evacuate and actually going through the motions could be the difference between life and death.

Task the response team with updating the plan every year. Alford recommends putting succinct instructions onto laminated, tabbed flip charts, which employees can consult in the middle of an emergency.

For future action

Food co-ops have long demonstrated their generosity in helping each other with the Disaster Relief Fund. But perhaps we also can help each other to prevent or mitigate the damage caused by disasters.

While the forms and checklists provided by the resources in the sidebar are a good starting point, there are many details specific to retail grocery stores that could be added to create a food co-op disaster preparedness template. For instance, would you think to order extra dumpsters before a storm and buy chains and locks for them? Managers who have been through disasters would be the ideal group to develop this template or be advisors. HR managers should also be involved.

Other possible areas for joint action include providing a remote server for backing up vital data and an 800 number with voice mailboxes for employees to contact.

Even with a template for a disaster preparedness plan, there will still be hard work for each co-op to do individually to adapt it to local conditions. But by laying the groundwork, joint action among co-ops could free up managers’ time and attention to make their individual disaster preparedness plans as realistic and comprehensive as they can be.

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Carolee Colter is a consultant to cooperatives and community-based organizations (250/505-5166 or [email protected]).

See other articles from this issue: #128 January - February - 2007