Lesson for disaster plans: Don't take communication for granted

By Kathy Gurchiek Oct 19, 2005

Communication is an element of disaster planning often taken for granted, organizations found in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita as they scrambled to locate employees who had been evacuated from their homes.

Being able to account for everyone is critical, said Karen Kerrigan, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council (SBEC), which heard from businesses sharing their preparedness stories.

After Sept. 11, 2001, and Katrina there were three to five days when many employers didnt know where their employees were and how they were doing, she observed.

Have some type of communication system where [employees] can check in and say [they're] alright, she advised, whether its through a web site or establishing an alternate, out-of-town number or 800 number employees can call.

Stein Mart Inc. found cell phone and local landline telephone service severely disrupted in the Gulf Coast area after Katrina hit, making locating and communicating with employees difficult, according to a memo to its associates on the clothing retailers web site.

The only reliable means of communications became the corporate 800 number and the associated voice mail system, said the memo, which includes instructions for using this system in the event of future emergencies.

While we expect that there may still be some disruption of communications in similar events, we expect this system will resolve many of the issues experienced in the days following Katrina, said the memo, which advised employees to keep a copy of the instructions with them at all times.

It is important for the welfare of an organization and its employees, notes the 2005 Disaster Preparedness Survey Report, which the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) is planning to release in November, to establish a continuous line of communication in the event of a natural disaster or terrorist attack.

Klocke of America Inc., a packager for cosmetic, pharmaceutical and food industries in Florida, learned the importance of having all its managers tasked with contacting employees after its experience with Hurricane Charley in August 2004.

Klockes HR manager, Marie Springsteen, PHR, an SHRM member, was the only manager who had a working phone when Charley hit. But she was not among those responsible for contacting employees and checking on their safety under the company plan.

All 50 employees, 44 of whom live in Florida, were located within four days. But now all managers participate in the phone tree and receive an updated list of employees every time there is a change of personnel or a revision in an employees phone number, Springsteen said.

Before disaster looms

Planning should happen long before disaster looms, but nearly two-thirds of more than 1,000 finance professionals doubt their organizations are well prepared to handle an event similar to hurricanes Katrina and Rita, according to an Oct. 10 survey at the Annual Conference of the Association for Financial Professionals (AFP).

Their organizations are only somewhat prepared with continuity plans in the event of weather-related natural disasters or terrorism, said a majority of those polled. Fifty-nine percent said Katrina and Rita impacted or significantly impacted their organizations operations.

While most companies continuity plans address primary areas such as bank office operation redundancy, communications and office business operations, the survey found, only 24 percent of finance professionals indicated that their business or organization recently tested its continuity plans as a result of the hurricanes. Twenty-six percent said they plan to test their continuity plans, and 50 percent said their organization has no such plan.

At Klocke, regular updates on the progress of storms and annual reviews of its hurricane plan help the firm plan for natural disasters.

Ive been through enough hurricanes in my life, I try to be prepared, Springsteen said.

She recalled how Hurricane Charley went from a Category 2 to a Category 4 storm within an hour before hitting Fort Myers, Fla., instead of Tampa, its predicted landfall site.

There was no time to evacuate, she said, so there wasnt much you could do if you were unprepared.

Establishing relationships with area vendors long before disaster looms also is important, said Cindy Horrell, PHR, vice president of HR at Four County Electric Membership Corp. in North Carolina.

Getting fuel just to operate our vehicles was a challenge after one severe storm, she said. It helped that the utility cooperative renews relationships routinely with vendors such as its fuel suppliers and a catering service. And the organization makes sure that it and its vendors have updated contact numbers for each other.

Preparedness also requires flexibility, Horrell said.

Things can change very rapidly, and nothing is normal anymoreeverything from your [communication] system may not work to losing valuable vendors who may be helping you.

One storm found Horrell spending an entire day at the small towns only laundry, feeding quarters into machines to wash and dry sheets, towels and clothing of workers who were toiling nearly around the clock for 14 days. In some cases, the workers were from out of state and couldnt get home for a change of clothes.


HR plays a role in forming disaster preparedness plans. Among resources that HR professionals can use is the Department of Homeland Security web site. It includes links on continuity and emergency planning, on involving co-workers, and on developing a crisis communication plan.

There are just some basics that employers really should consider implementing or executing, SBECs Kerrigan said. The work really has been done for businesses that just want to download samples or a checklist or an outline of a plan.

Businesses may want to consider tapping their county emergency management organization, as Klocke does. That organization receives faxed storm updates and Lee County Emergency Managements free All Hazards Guide. Klocke provides local emergency officials with a list of its essential personnel, their picture IDs and their phone numbers so those employees may enter areas where Klockes production facility is located to evaluate any damage, Springsteen said.

After planning for the protection of people, an organization should have steps in place for protecting its financial data, databases, custom software, HR records and insurance files, and it should have copies of signed contracts and proof of ownership or proof of loss, NonProfit Times advises in its Sept. 12 issue.

SBECs Kerrigan concurs. If you have an hour to evacuate, you should be able to pick up these documents in one place that show the history and financial story of your business, she said, noting the importance of having paper as well as electronic copies of critical business documents.

Paper is still important, you know, she said. After a disaster, you may not be able to access the computers.

Kathy Gurchiek is an associate editor at HR News . She can be reached at kgurchiek@shrm.org.

Related article:

Emergency Response Toolkit, SHRM HR tools/toolkit, Aug. 31, 2005.

For more articles and information related to the natural disasters, go to SHRMs Hurricane Response Page.


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