By David Paulison
When disaster strikes, the link between business and community becomes obvious. Anywhere from 40% to 60% of America’s small- to medium-size businesses close following disasters in their communities. Most are simply lost forever—never to reopen their doors.
In 1992, Hurricane Andrew displaced more than one million people in Florida and Louisiana. Until Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Andrew’s heavy rains and tornadoes resulted in the most expensive hurricane in U.S. history.
In the storm’s aftermath, countless businesses were lost, and it took more than 10 years for South Dade County to recover. Today, the community is finally showing signs of its previous life. That’s the key.
Why is preparedness vital? Such disastrous events—either natural or manmade—happen all the time, and with increasing frequency. Most often, people and communities have little or no warning. Most firms react too late—operating completely behind the curve.
Katrina was one of the most destructive disasters the U.S. has faced. Faults in the response and recovery following the storm were mostly due to a lack of preparedness. Katrina was a national catastrophe. It affected the environment and the economy, our infrastructure, and our national pride. A late evacuation notice resulted in 12,000 people stranded in the Super Dome with no food, no water, minimal security, and almost no medical care. No one thought to pre-stage the National Guard, resulting in rioting in the streets.
However, what Katrina really did was expose a nationwide lack of planning and preparedness. And it doesn’t stop with hurricanes. Most businesses, individuals, and cities weren’t prepared for any type of natural disaster—flood, ice storm, tornado, and so on.
To better prepare, we need to analyze the failure, look at the lessons learned, and decide how to fix the problem.
Failures can be broken down into three deficiencies: lack of imagination, lack of investment, and lack of willingness to act. Often individuals, businesses, and government can’t imagine the types of events that can occur in their cities or regions, and therefore are reactive in their decision-making rather than proactive. Preparedness includes planning, training, and assuring the durability of facilities. For example, hospitals often have generators stored in the basement. Any time there’s a flood these become inoperable. And, too often, individuals recognize changes need to be made, but they lack the willingness to act.
There’s no clear blueprint to prepare your business for a disaster. But there are several key items a business owner should consider—independent of company size or geographic location:
Business owners must be informed—knowing what could affect the business and its operations. Find answers to these questions:
Plan for the unknown. Be creative, yet practical. No one would have ever predicted half of the states in the northeast would go without power because someone threw the wrong switch. Unforeseen events will happen, so be prepared. Make sure:
If you have access to the tools necessary to get your credit union up and running and take care of yourself for the first few days following a disaster, the recovery will be smoother and faster. Disaster preparedness is the responsibility of every part of our society—individuals and families, businesses, communities, and government. When any one of these elements fails, the whole system collapses.
David Paulison is a nationally and internationally recognized leader in emergency and disaster preparedness, response, and recovery and former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.