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Preparing for a Natural Disaster

As weather-related disasters increase in frequency and severity, companies need to stay prepared.

​When Hurricane Florence drenched the Carolinas in September 2018, knocking out power and cutting off Wilmington, N.C., from the rest of the state, background screening company CastleBranch was prepared. For a week and a half after the office reopened, food truck vendors served up three meals a day for the company's employees and their families, hotel stays were arranged for those whose homes were damaged by the storm, and HR trainers organized activities for employees' school-age kids.

When a natural disaster is on the horizon—whether a wildfire, an earthquake, a flood or a hurricane—Marie MacDonald, SHRM-CP, says, it's imperative that company leaders ask themselves two questions: "Are our people OK?" and "How can we make their lives easier once it's done?"

As director of human resources at CastleBranch when Hurricane Florence hit (she left the company earlier this year), MacDonald created the employee section of the company's disaster management plan.

As climate change increases the frequency and severity of natural disasters, which weather experts predict will continue, organizations need to prepare now for the possibility of being impacted regardless of where they're located or the type of disaster they might face.

There were 14 natural disasters in 2018 that cost the country $91 billion, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; 80 percent of those losses stemmed from hurricanes Florence and Michael, along with wildfires in the West.

It Pays to Plan

Advance planning and communication are keys to disaster preparedness, say HR and public service professionals who have been impacted in recent years.

For the city of North Miami Beach, Fla., which has faced repeated hurricane threats, a disaster management plan is in place and revisited throughout the year, says city manager Esmond Scott. Drills are held regularly. "The plan is so systematic," he says, "we know what to do."

For example, IT employees secure the computer system, the facilities department puts up hurricane shutters, and the fleet group regularly services police and public works vehicles so they're always ready to respond. "They keep their phones charged, sandbags ready and chain saws sharpened," Scott says.

The key takeaway: Each department in an organization should have its own disaster response plan, says Heather Deyrieux, SHRM-SCP, manager of workforce planning for the Sarasota County government and president of HR Florida State Council, SHRM's Florida affiliate.

For new hires who have a role to play during a natural disaster or who have to be on call, their job applications and job descriptions should include what's expected of them, she says.

In some cases, remote work may be an option for employees during a natural disaster, Deyrieux says. Or if a disaster is looming, an organization might want to establish temporary operations in another location so it can continue to provide services to national or global clients.

At grocery store chain Publix, which operates in seven Southern states, a cross-functional emergency response team prepares for hurricanes, tornadoes and winter storms, says Maria Brous, the company's director of media and community relations. If a hurricane is threatening, for example, team members track the storm's path, collaborate with suppliers to adequately stock shelves and work with employees so they're prepared for the storm.

Before hurricane season begins each June 1, the Lakeland, Fla.-based grocer e-mails its employees to remind them to stock up on essential supplies, such as cash, medications and pet food, and to create their own emergency plans, Brous says.

With more than 200,000 employees, Publix may require employees to work longer hours to prepare stores for an approaching storm, but it also gives them time off to secure their homes. Employees often help one another on tasks such as putting up hurricane shutters. "They almost instinctively set up teams in storms," Brous says.

disaster on the rise

At CastleBranch, MacDonald met with each of the company's 400 employees individually as Hurricane Florence neared to ask where they were going, who they were going with, where they were staying and whether they had someone to stay with. "We don't want anybody to be alone during events like this," she says.

If a hurricane is approaching, the company decides 48 hours in advance of expected landfall whether it will shut down, and that information is relayed to employees. "Closer to landfall, we communicate more rapidly," says MacDonald, who is membership co-chair of SHRM's Lower Cape Fear Human Resources Association chapter and workforce readiness chair of the North Carolina Society for Human Resource Management, SHRM's North Carolina affiliate.

CastleBranch leaders also tell employees to let their supervisors know if they don't feel safe coming to work and reassure workers they are not in jeopardy of losing their job for doing so, she says.

All the company's leaders also have a list, both online and on paper, with employees' names, home phone numbers, cellphone numbers and emergency contacts, MacDonald says.

After the Storm

Once Hurricane Florence had passed, CastleBranch leaders called employees to check on them and sent out a text message asking staffers to indicate whether they were safe by responding "yes" or "no."

Company leaders called again 24 hours later to see if employees could return to work. Because of the contacts she had made before the hurricane, MacDonald arranged housing at extended-stay hotels for 35 employees who were displaced by the hurricane. She also lined up food truck vendors to feed CastleBranch employees and their families. Employees greatly appreciated that the company cared, she says.

In North Miami Beach, the HR department has a list of employee contacts so it can reach staffers after a hurricane passes, says Audrea Hinds, the city's deputy HR director.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, there were 14 natural disasters in 2018, costing the country $91 billion; 80 percent of those losses stemmed from hurricanes Florence and Michael, along with wildfires in the West.

The city has a dedicated line for employees to call in to ask for assistance or to find out when they're scheduled to return to work. If city offices remain closed, employees are paid during that time, even though the city may not be legally required to provide compensation, Hinds says. If employees are unable to return to work when city offices reopen, they can use personal days for time off.

In California, where typical natural disasters include wildfires and earthquakes, hospitals are required by state and federal laws to identify potential hazards and develop plans to address them, says Mary Massey, vice president of emergency management for the California Hospital Association (CHA) in Sacramento.

When mudslides hit Ventura County, Calif., in 2018, closing down highways, one hospital used boats and an airport shuttle to get its employees to work, Massey says.

For essential services and businesses, she recommends having agreements in place with hotels and RV dealerships to provide temporary housing for displaced employees.

There also should be plans to help family members and pets. Otherwise, employees might say, "If our families aren't taken care of, we're not coming to work," she says.

Wildfires in Northern California in 2017 displaced more than 350 Sutter Health physicians and employees, and more than 120 lost their homes, said Chief Operating Officer James Conforti. Sutter provided disaster recovery pay, as well as assistance to help with such costs as lodging, food and clothing.

The health care system also created a disaster relief fund and received permission from the IRS to allow employees to donate personal days—which were converted into cash—and money to assist co-workers in need, Conforti says. By the end of 2017, almost $900,000 had been raised to help those whose homes were damaged or destroyed. The fund can be reactivated if other disasters strike.

legal lowdown head

HR departments should be prepared for pay and attendance issues that crop up when a natural disaster strikes and must be aware of the state and federal laws that govern those decisions, says Aaron Holt, an associate with the law firm Cozen O'Connor in Houston, who answers some key questions here. 

Are there any protections for employees who are absent from work because of a disaster?

Some states have protections for employees who evacuate because of a natural disaster. Federal law protects those serving in the military or working in disaster response.

What happens if a business is closed due to a disaster or can't reopen because of damage?

The Fair Labor Standards Act does not require an employer to pay an hourly employee if no work is available. If a salaried employee works for part of the workweek, he or she must be paid.

What happens if an employee can't return to work because of a personal issue following a disaster?

If an hourly employee can't return to work because of transportation issues, for example, the employer is not required to pay him or her. The employer may not have to pay an exempt employee who is absent for personal reasons, but our firm recommends caution in docking pay.

What if an employee is on call?

The employee must be paid, even if he or she isn't doing any work.

Can employees take leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act?

They can take leave if they have a serious health condition caused by a natural disaster or if they need to care for someone with a serious health condition.

On the Front Lines

Fresenius Medical Care North America, which provides dialysis treatment for more than 200,000 patients in all 50 states, has teams in place to handle any type of natural disaster. The Waltham, Mass.-based company has established incident command teams at seven locations around the country. These teams have had to respond to everything from Hurricane Maria, which pummeled Puerto Rico in 2017, to a 7.0 magnitude-earthquake that struck Alaska in November.

Team leaders speak every two weeks throughout the year, receive regular training, and participate in community disaster drills, according to Bob Loeper, vice president for operations support and disaster response.

When Hurricane Florence threatened the Southeast in 2018, Fresenius' disaster response team from Mobile, Ala., set up a staging area outside Atlanta. The team was equipped with water, diesel fuel, generators, food and its own security.

"We're the first ones in and the last ones out," Loeper says. It's crucial for Fresenius to get its clinics back up and running as soon as possible so it can provide life-sustaining care for patients under treatment for kidney failure.

It's also important to provide employees with whatever assistance they might need. "If we don't take care of our staff, we can't take care of our patients," Loeper says.

Fresenius, which has 60,000 employees, provides housing, car rentals, gasoline, food, scrubs, generators and other supplies for employees in need. The company also offers stipends for workers who have extra child care expenses because of a disaster.
And even if clinics are temporarily shut down, employees are paid. "You aren't hurt financially when a clinic is closed," Loeper says.

The HR department maintains a list of volunteers who are ready to step in and relieve staffers. "The company really comes together strong," he says.

Fresenius is also skilled at improvising. When the extreme flooding from Hurricane Harvey stranded Houston residents on their rooftops in 2017, the company bought boats in Mobile, Ala., and brought them to Texas, and also teamed up with a local duck boat tour operator, to rescue patients stranded in their homes.

After a disaster or a drill, the teams assess what went right, what went wrong and where the gaps were, Loeper says, and then assign people to address those flaws.

Down the Road

Some disasters might destroy businesses or leave employees' homes uninhabitable. After Hurricane Irma raked Florida in 2017 and Hurricane Michael devastated the Florida Panhandle in 2018, some Publix employees were displaced either temporarily or permanently. As a result, Brous says, some either moved to other areas and were able to work at stores in their new location or went on long-term loan to other stores.

One manager, who was on vacation when the storm hit, came back early to help dozens of employees get back into their homes, Brous says. Other employees worked extra hours so their co-workers could focus on getting their lives back in order.

For some employees, she notes, working was a way to take their minds off the storm damage, while others wanted to work to support their community during the difficult time.

Gail Blanchard-Saiger, CHA’s vice president of labor and employment,  says it's important to have ongoing psychological support for employees who have gone through a natural disaster. "Six months to a year later, people are still traumatized by it," she says.

One hospital offered a spa day onsite, with free massages and time to relax with coffee, she says.

To gauge how they handled their response to Hurricane Florence, CastleBranch executives held a town hall meeting afterward, seeking input from employees on what they did well and what needed improvement.

That information was used to help revise the company's disaster plan. "You can't stay with the plan you had even last year," MacDonald says.

Susan Ladika is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Fla.

Explore Further

SHRM provides resources to help companies more effectively more effectively prepare their employees and their workplaces for a natural disaster.

Toolkit: Managing Through Emergency and Disaster
While many organizational officials view emergency and disaster planning as purely a function of risk management and safety professionals, human resource management plays a key role in planning for any disaster or emergency.

Policy: Emergency Evacuation Program
A sample policy for workplace building evacuation.

Express Requests: Hurricane Preparedness
HR plays a key role in planning for any disaster or emergency, whether that involves staffing and workforce planning, training, reorganization, or revising plans and policies to accommodate changing needs and priorities.

Workplace Weather Disaster Resources 
Employers must be prepared for a myriad of workplace issues that crop up before and after severe weather strikes.

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