Katrina provided tough lessons for HR leaders, firms

By Pamela Babcock Aug 28, 2006
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If a major hurricane strikes again, Coast Electric Power Association in Bay St. Louis, Miss., plans to have a doctor visit the company’s tent cities to treat employees and contract crews. And a priest will be on hand to offer Communion, just like during Hurricane Katrina, and other religious officials will be available on request. And trailers with laundry facilities will be hauled in days in advance so clothing for the thousands of workers restoring power can be washed.

Meanwhile, the IT department has been moved inland. And personnel files are being backed up electronically in case they’re lost or damaged.

When Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast nearly a year ago on Aug. 29, it pushed disaster preparedness —and HR professionals and the organizations they work for—to the limits and sometimes well beyond.

As the one-year anniversary approaches, the recovery is by no means over. But HR professionals say the lessons learned could apply to any emergency.

“The biggest challenge is the unknown,” said Ann Irby, SPHR, a benefits assistant with Coast Electric.

“You just need to be prepared to meet your employees’ needs, whatever they are. And if you can meet those needs, the employees will be better able to function doing their job.”

Putting response plans to the test

When the storm hit, many organizations had emergency response plans in place. Some had been updated after Sept. 11. But most weren’t designed to deal with what was arguably one of the nation’s worst natural disasters.

A recent survey by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans found that 52 percent of all organizations have a disaster plan, while a quarter more said they plan to have one within a year.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that 67 percent of those who have a plan said it was drawn up or revised because of Hurricane Katrina, Sept. 11 and the SARS scare, according to the study, which included responses from 261 organizations in the United States and Canada.

A SHRM survey of HR professionals in the Gulf states of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida completed in early July found that 35 percent had changed their emergency response policy after the storm, while another 9 percent said they plan to change it.

Of those surveyed, 15 percent said they’re running disaster drills in the event of a hurricane. Based on interviews, others say they’re testing those plans more frequently.

E Federal Credit Union in Baton Rouge, La., now holds drills twice a year, rather than annually, said Rebecca Briley, human resource coordinator, past president of the Greater Baton Rouge SHRM and member of SHRM’s disaster response panel.

“The biggest lesson is to prepare in advance to implement your procedures and review them at least every six months to make sure that they fit the needs of your organization and employees,” Briley said.

Coast Electric has moved its emergency response center out of harm’s way and has developed a hurricane preparedness publication for employees. It covers new policies and has emergency phone numbers and information to follow based on the severity of the storm.

“We determined there was a specific need if it was a Category 1 through 3 and a greater need for a Category 4 or 5 that would entail a different response,” explained Marilyn Sefton, SPHR, HR manager for Coast Electric.

Other companies have revised emergency response plans so that key employees aren’t all in one place.

“We’re separating our management team if there is a disaster that’s foreseeable, with half of us staying here in a safe place and half of us evacuating to other areas such as Dallas and Birmingham,” reported Debbie McVadon, SPHR, vice president of HR for Keesler Federal Credit Union in Biloxi, Miss.

Can you hear me now?

After Katrina, one of the key challenges was re-establishing communication and accounting for employees. Some organizations used web sites, toll-free numbers, e-mail listservs and emergency contact trees. But these methods were often futile because of the lack of power and phone service.

The SHRM survey found that 31 percent of organizations changed their communication policy after the storm, while 5 percent said they still have plans to change it.

In interviews, many HR professionals say their organizations purchased satellite phones. Coast Electric now has one at each of its three major locations and generating plant and has contracted with a satellite Internet service provider.

“For employees outside the area, if they can’t get in touch with us, they can contact the statewide offices or the generating plant,” Irby said.

The company plans to publish a daily employee newsletter, which it did using generators after Hurricane Katrina.

“It developed out of the need to get information out about tetanus shots and daily information that was changing,” said Sefton. “We were printing it manually and putting it in our tents for employees who worked in the field.”

In the future, Coast Electric will require evacuating employees to sign a form saying where they’re going and providing an emergency phone contact.

In addition to purchasing satellite phones, Keesler Federal Credit Union is looking at establishing a toll-free 800-number outside the area for employees to listen to a recorded message or leave one themselves, McVadon said.

Prior to the storm, Omni Hotels’ phone tree was distributed only from the hotel manager level through the corporate level. Now, each employee—including hourly workers—in New Orleans has a laminated copy with emergency cell phone contacts for their hotel’s executives, plus an emergency corporate number, said Joy Rothschild, senior vice president of associate services for Omni in Dallas.

This procedure will be replicated at Omni’s 38 properties in the United States and Canada. Meanwhile, hotel executives at every Omni have emergency cell numbers of all corporate executives, Rothschild noted.

And Omni and other companies that launched dedicated web sites with disaster recovery information say that’s a practice they plan to continue. The Omni site, a joint effort between HR and Omni public relations, was launched Sept. 1, just days after the storm.

“It helped us find people, which was the most daunting task,” Rothschild said.

They needed everything

During the storm, Coast Electric saw its 230 full-time employee population swell to 3,000 with contract crews, but in addition it provided shelter for other company employees.

“We housed any employee who did not have a place to live; many were housed in the office buildings where they worked rather than at the tent city,” Irby said. Employees ate meals prepared at tent cities because restaurants and grocery stores were closed.

Coast Electric is buying land for staging areas that can provide housing, fuel and food.

It plans to make HR the contact for donations so it can get critical items such as diapers, formula, underwear, sunscreen and lip balm. After the storm, Coast Electric was overwhelmed with well-meaning donations of clothing—including some winter items—from co-ops around the country.

“We’ll have a more targeted effort” next time, Sefton said.

And because laundry services were shuttered after the storm, plans call for trailers with washers and dryers to be put in place in advance.

In addition, Omni is making plans to meet the needs of employees. The Omni Royal Orleans in the French Quarter of New Orleans sustained little damage. After the storm, the chain allowed employees to remain and serve guests, as well as to have shelter, before a second evacuation was ordered, Rothschild said.

In the future, if there’s a mandatory evacuation, the city government will not allow the hotel to shelter employees, their families, guests or others.

So, during the past year Omni used its relationships with bus lines and limousine services in the New Orleans area to develop an evacuation plan for its two New Orleans properties. It’s developing similar evacuation plans for its other locations across the United States and in Canada, Rothschild added.

Meanwhile, Citicorp, Rooms-To-Go and others are stockpiling emergency food supplies for employees and families, according to Annette Henry, PHR, director of human resources for G.A. Food Service Inc. in St. Petersburg, Fla.

G.A. Food Service provided dozens of state, federal and local emergency response agencies with food during the 2005 hurricane season.

Organizations are buying shelf-stable packaged meals that don’t require refrigeration and typically have a shelf life of a year, along with the company’s newest product, self-heating meals in a can.

“After the lessons learned from last year's season, companies are taking a more proactive approach with their business continuity planning,” Henry said.

Show me the money

Getting cash to employees so they could deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was particularly daunting, HR professionals say.

In the future, depending on the severity of the hurricane, Coast Electric plans to give cash advances to employees as well as to continue making bank deposits for them after payroll, something it did after Hurricane Katrina.

Omni paid employees and extended their benefits for 90 days, a policy it will implement in the future, depending on the severity of the disaster. The company is encouraging employees to sign up for direct deposit because it was difficult for employees to cash checks in areas where they had relocated.

And the company set up a charitable fund that allowed employees to donate vacation time or cash for co-workers through payroll deduction. It’s making quarterly requests for donations to the fund in the event there’s another emergency, Rothschild said.

Meanwhile, Keesler Federal Credit Union has begun cross-training employees, such as back-office workers who don’t usually do teller functions, to perform basic teller transactions in the event that the credit union has to operate with a skeletal crew, McVadon said.

Other key survey findings

Here are some other findings from the SHRM survey:

    • Because many companies lost not only buildings but also valuable records, the acute need for computer files to be backed up and readily available was tops on everyone’s mind. More than half (57 percent) said it’s part of their contingency plan for the 2006 hurricane season.

    • Leave policies at the majority (91 percent) of organizations will remain the same. Only 7 percent said they changed the policy, while 2 percent report that they plan to change it.

    • Only 4 percent of organizations have changed their health and wellness policy, while 2 percent said they still plan to modify it.

    • Twenty percent reported that their organization has no contingency plan and has no plan to prepare for the 2006 hurricane season.

More to be done

While the Gulf Coast continues to recover, Coast Electric employees have all returned to work, although 37 are still living in Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers. In March, the company was named one of the “Best Places to Work in Mississippi” by the Mississippi Business Journal.

HR leaders there say they think that accolade is attributable in large part to HR’s efforts to help meet the needs of employees. But Coast Electric isn’t resting on its laurels. The company plans to continue refining its plan should the unthinkable happen again.

“You can’t be too prepared,” said Sefton. “We just don’t know how our employees are going to react if another storm gets in the Gulf.”

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer in the New York City area.

Related resources:

SHRM hurricane response web page

SHRM Disaster Management Plan Toolkit

SHRM Employee Health, Safety and Security Panel

For the latest HR-related business and government news, go daily to www.shrm.org/hrnews.

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