Hurricane Season is Here. Is Your Company Prepared with a Disaster Response Plan?

Hurricane season is here – and could be the worst one yet. Past seasons serve as a clear warning: Last year, Hurricane Florence caused major flooding and released "lagoons of pig waste" into the environment in North Carolina1. In 2017, Hurricane Maria killed nearly 3,000 people and is still hobbling Puerto Rico's infrastructure. More than a decade before, Hurricane Katrina killed over 1,800 people and forced the relocation of thousands more.2

As climate change intensifies these storms, businesses must brace for potential losses. For reference, Hurricane Florence and Hurricane Michael collectively caused over $49 billion in damage.3

As we face this year's hurricane season, it's crucial for companies to prepare. And that means adopting a Disaster Response Plan with a business continuity component. Unfortunately, this is a precaution that many businesses overlook. A recent Nationwide Insurance study found that two in three businesses don't have a written disaster plan, even though most think disaster recovery would take more than three months.4

Here's a quick checklist to start your organization's hurricane preparations:

1. Monitor storm forecasts regularly, especially during hurricane season. The Atlantic hurricane season lasts from June to November and peaks between August and October, according to OSHA. The Eastern Pacific hurricane season starts in mid-May and ends in November.

2. Map evacuation routes and timelines to help employees and other stakeholders avoid the storm and its impact.

3. Identify safe shelter options in case evacuation is not possible. Consider that hurricanes may cause major flooding and wind damage, so shelter areas must provide protection from both.

When preparing for hurricane season, don't forget about the aftermath

When it comes to hurricanes, the eye of the storm may not be the worst of it; it's often the byproduct of flooding that causes the most devastation. After Hurricane Harvey drenched large portions of Texas for eight days in 2017, rainfall exceeded 60 inches in some locations – 15 inches more than the annual average for eastern Texas and the Texas coast, making it the most significant rainfall event in U.S. history5. At the storm's peak, one-third of Houston was under water, and flooding forced 39,000 people from their homes6.

The aftermath of flooding can threaten to put businesses under water – both literally and figuratively. To prepare your company for the potential effects, take these steps:

1. Determine if your business is located in a flood zone. Consult FEMA's Flood Map Service Center. Monitor storm activity and precipitation predictions, especially in flood-prone areas.

2. Be particularly careful driving in flooded areas. Roughly half of flood fatalities are vehicle-related. According to OSHA's website, "Six inches of standing water is enough to stall some cars, a foot of water can float a vehicle, and two feet of moving water is enough to sweep a car away."7 To ensure fleet safety, it's best to halt all driving amidst flooding.

3. Store or move toxic or hazardous substances above anticipated flood water levels to avoid contaminating flood waters. Work with local authorities on a flood response plan if your business has a large quantity of hazardous material or waste on-site.

4. Map evacuation routes and allow sufficient time for employees and others on the premises to reach safety.

5. Educate yourself about the best flood-prevention tools and tactics. In some cases, the use of sandbags and other water barriers can be effective in mitigating damage.

Resources like Ready.gov and OSHA's Disaster Preparedness website can give you additional information and resources to consider when planning.

Create Your Response Plan

The first step to crafting an effective emergency response plan is to assess your risks. The biggest natural disaster risks to your business may vary depending on your region or type of business. For example, a business that houses toxic chemicals in a region prone to fires may have a different plan than a medical center that is in a flood zone. Your risk assessment should include a list of stakeholders, ranging from employees and customers to suppliers and the surrounding community, as well as how they may be affected by a natural disaster.

Evaluate each of the potential risks and create protocols and processes to address the safety of your stakeholders. Include facility-specific details, such as how to evacuate and where to assemble to account for everyone, as well as when and where to shelter in place.

4 Essential Elements to your Response Plan

1. If/then scenarios and actions based on your company's risk profile. Examples of this include: "If an earthquake happens, then take these actions" or "If a flood threatens to release toxic chemicals into the environment, then take these actions."

2. Provisions for company-specific circumstances, such as assisting individuals with disabilities or protecting equipment in a storm.

3. Personnel responsible for overseeing and carrying out each step in the plan.

4. Communication instructions, including how to notify first responders, employees, customers, community members, and local media.

Your plan should address specific safety issues and protocols. For example, share relevant advice or warnings about the use of personal protective equipment, such as protective clothing, goggles, helmets, gloves, or other clothing or gear that employees should use to help protect against injury. Include information about power tools or hand tools that can be used in case of emergency, such as pumps to eliminate water, hoses, and water sources for fires, etc.

Make sure to include a business continuity component

After a hurricane, your place of business may not be accessible as damage is remediated. In such cases, how and where will your employees do their jobs? According to FEMA, following a disaster, 90% of smaller companies fail within a year unless they can resume operations within five days. The business continuity component of your recovery plan is critical and should outline key provisions, including:

1. Work location, whether it's from home or at a secondary location.

2. Equipment to be used. If employees will use their own devices, ensure that they are equipped with proper virus protection and that they adhere to cybersecurity measures that are typically used in your office to keep sensitive data safe.

3. Communication and how to provide regular updates to employees, customers, suppliers, community members, and others. Cloud-based platforms can be particularly useful in keeping your business running after a disaster, because they can be accessed remotely and allow employees to work outside the office. Discuss such options with your IT team. You can also store your disaster recovery and business continuity plan in the cloud, but also consider keeping hard copies on premises and at alternate locations in case of power failure.

Thoughtful preparation is your business's best defense against hurricane disruption and damage – during the storm and in the aftermath. To learn more about how to respond to natural disasters, watch this brief video from Skillsoft Compliance's Emergency and Disaster Preparedness course.

1. "Lagoons of Pig Waste Are Overflowing After Florence. Yes, That's as Nasty as It Sounds." Kendra Pierre-Louis, The New York Times, September 19, 2018.
2. "More than 12 years after Hurricane Katrina, scientists are learning what makes some survivors more resilient than others." Kelly Servik, Science, February 27, 2018.
3. "Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters." National Oceanic and Atmospheric Information (NOAA), 2018.
4. "2 in 3 Small Businesses Lack a Written Disaster Recovery Plan." Nationwide Insurance, February 28, 2017.
5. "Post-Harvey Report Provides Inundation Maps and Flood Details on 'Largest Rainfall Event Recorded in US History.'" U.S. Geological Survey, July 9, 2018.
6. "Hurricane Harvey Facts, Damage and Costs." Kimberly Amadeo, The Balance, January 20, 2019.
7. "Response and Recovery." OSHA.gov.

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