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Image credit: U.S. Air Force by 1st Lt. Zachary West, via Creative Commons.

Is your organization prepared for a natural disaster? Is your business disaster plan current? Here’s how to prepare for tomorrow’s disaster today.

We all knew Hurricane Harvey was coming. Weather forecasters had been tracking the storm and projecting its path for days.

Still, there were some surprises – such as strengthening to a category 4 before making landfall the first time. And some unprecedented challenges, including the length of time Harvey, by then a tropical storm, stalled over Texas and Louisiana and relentlessly dumped rain onto the water-logged region.

Property damage, injuries, and loss of life. The stories, photos, and numbers all add up to tremendous, heart-breaking devastation – along with some inspiring feats of courage and generosity. It will take years, says FEMA, to recover from this storm.

Is your business prepared to face a natural disaster like Hurricane Harvey? Here’s how to prepare for tomorrow’s disaster today.

Know Who You Are

Start by taking stock of who you are as a company. Are you a retailer with physical shops that rely on employees to work the stores and a supply chain to deliver goods? Do you have a call-center-based service? Do employees routinely work at customer sites? Is yours a mission-critical business that other businesses rely on?

What you do, how you serve your customers, and how critical you are to others are all key factors in shaping your disaster plan and response.

Plan Now

Though Hurricane Harvey was a one-of-a-kind storm, the general nature of its disruption was predictable. The same is true for most other disasters. Insurance companies and business continuity professionals plan for tomorrow all the time. They know, given a company’s location and business structure, which natural and man-made disruptions are most likely to occur and which are the greatest threat to a business.

Any emergency response has four stages: mitigation (insurance), preparation, response, and recovery. While the details of any incident, event, or disaster are unique, we know enough about the general threat to craft a business continuity plan. To guide you, answer the overarching question of how you can continue to serve your customers with as little disruptions a possible, while keeping your employees safe from harm.

Act Quickly

For some disasters, you can act as soon as the threat emerges. Route calls to an unaffected call center. Raise computers and merchandise from a ground floor. Arrange for employees to work remotely. By getting employees and equipment out of harm’s way, you may be able to avoid or minimize the impact.

When you must react to an unanticipated event, act quickly. A good emergency response plan will guide you through those first few hours of who does what, when, and how to coordinate. You’ll want to account for employees first. Are they all safe? Is anyone in urgent need of assistance? Then assess your facilities. Are the buildings impacted? Is there power, phone, and internet service? And your customers. Do you need to be doing anything to serve customers right now?

Coordinate Your Recovery

Once the immediate response is in hand, use your business continuity plan to guide you through recovery. If your business and employees are directly impacted, coordinate with local authorities to comply with mandates and recommendations. Identify appropriate assistance resources.

If any of your vital employees are temporarily unavailable, leave the company, or worse, you’ll need to assess what specific skills those employees possessed. Ideally, you have business continuity planning software or a competency management system that organizes and tracks the skills of your current workforce. Identify who may be able to step in – and what competencies they need to develop to do their job well.

Communicate Well and Often

Communicate, communicate, communicate. The most important part of preparing for, responding to, and recovering from any disaster is communication. Your employees, customers, partners, and others will want to hear what’s happening and what’s next.

Each of your constituent groups will have different questions. Your communication plan should be tailored to anticipate and address those questions. When you don’t know an answer, say so. When there’s no change, still provide a status. By communicating frequently, your people will know you’re thinking of them and anticipating their needs.

Know Your Rights and Responsibilities

As an employer, there are laws and regulations that guide how you operate and how you treat employees. Be sure your risk team is up to date on federal, state, and local laws as well as industry regulations and insurance policies.

In the wake of Harvey, HR and risk professionals are turning to online legal guidance like this blog from Littler and this post from SHRM to create checklists for review. Be sure to check with your own advisors about your specific situation to ensure that you’re in compliance.

Do the Right Thing

Once you know your rights and responsibilities, do the right thing. That is, be true to your company culture. When you’re able, do things beyond what’s required. Organize a food drive. Continue to pay employees who can’t get to work. Allow paid time off for employees who volunteer with hands-on support and clean up. It’s this extra touch that will make a long-term impact on morale and loyalty.

Adapt and Plan

Revisit your plan at least annually. Adapt your plan based on what worked and what didn’t in your last incident. Harness tools and technologies that can help. For example, mass communication systems – which simultaneously send and track urgent messages via email, phone and text – are becoming more common.

For Harvey, social media was a tremendous asset for emergency response. By keeping your plan, your response team and your tools up-to-date, you’ll be as prepared as possible for the next emergency.

Our hearts go out to all those affected by Hurricane Harvey. We thank the many volunteers and emergency response professionals who are heroically guiding the response and recovery.

If you’re working on your business disaster plan or continuity plan, FEMA has an online Emergency Preparedness Resources page for businesses, with everything from Emergency Response Requirements to Business Impact Analysis checklists, worksheets and templates to get you started. For business continuity planning software, please visit our website or contact us to see if WebMentor Skills™ can help you prepare for the unexpected.