It’s been a difficult year for hurricanes, with multiple named major hurricanes making landfall in the United States and other countries bordering the Atlantic Ocean.
Despite the difficulties, there are many lessons that can be captured from the hurricane season thus far that companies can use internally to increase their resiliency and ensure that they can weather a future major storm in a better position.
In this episode of the Managing Uncertainty Podcast, Bryghtpath Principal & CEO Bryan Strawser and Senior Consultant Jennifer Otremba share their observations and lessons learned from their decades of major hurricane crisis management experience and working with clients throughout the course of this year’s major hurricanes. Topics discussed include crisis management frameworks, decision making in a crisis, preparedness for employees and companies, and the value in public/private sector partnerships.
Bryan Strawser: Three major hurricanes so far this year.
Jen Otremba: So far.
Bryan Strawser: Harvey came first, and then Irma, and Maria. It’s the most in a single year that I feel like I’ve had to respond to since 2005 when it was Hurricane Katrina, Rita, and Wilma all within the same 45 day time period.
Jen Otremba: And hopefully this will be it.
Bryan Strawser: Hopefully this will be it.
Jen Otremba: For this year.
Bryan Strawser: But there’s still time left-
Jen Otremba: There is. There is definitely time left.
Bryan Strawser: In the hurricane season. What we wanted to do today is have a little retrospective on what we think are some of the lessons that companies should have learned coming through this hurricane season. Jen and I, as we’ve mentioned, have led the response for multiple major hurricanes. My first was Katrina back in 2005, and many, many, many lessons that I’ve learned in the almost 12 years now since that landfall.
Jen Otremba: I think mine was Sandy.
Bryan Strawser: Sandy?
Jen Otremba: I think so.
Bryan Strawser: Sandy was not exactly a small storm.
Jen Otremba: No.
Bryan Strawser: We start with, as I think we always do, that this discussion always starts with personal preparedness for a company because your employees will be not able to help your company prepare, respond, and recover if they’re dealing with preparedness, response and recovery for their own family. We’ve shared lessons learned about what they should do around personal preparedness, about make a kit and have a plan, exercise the plan, be informed, all the basics that you get from the ready campaign. We’ve done a podcast about it.
Jen Otremba: Blog posts.
Bryan Strawser: We’ve done a couple blog posts about it.
Jen Otremba: Yup, we have.
Bryan Strawser: And we’re seeing some of this play out now in Puerto Rico where it’s almost, I think we’re two weeks post landfall of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and we still have areas that are without power, that don’t have access to clean drinking water, to potable water, and there’s a massive logistics effort being undertaken to try and supply all of those things with a few hiccups along the way.
Jen Otremba: Right. To be fair, no matter how much preparation we put in, or we discuss it beforehand, it seems like there’s always some significant lessons learned in the end even if we’ve done everything we thought we should have done.
Bryan Strawser: One lesson learned is just the need to prepare. It starts with that personal preparedness effort, but companies also need to take a preparedness effort. In my mind, that preparedness effort starts far in advance of hurricane season by, as we’ve talked about before, having a crisis management framework, by which they assemble and make decisions for the company and communicate the results of those decisions.
Jen Otremba: We’ve talked about the framework quite a bit before too.
Bryan Strawser: There’s lots of different approaches. I don’t really care what your company’s answer is.
Jen Otremba: Bryan doesn’t care.
Bryan Strawser: I don’t care, but have one. Have a way to get the right people together in a collaborative way with decision making delegated appropriately, and make decisions about the situation that you are being faced with.
Jen Otremba: Right, quickly.
Bryan Strawser: Quickly. Instead what I see, and we’ve talked to several potential clients in the last couple of weeks, we see a lot of well we’re not really sure who’s in charge, and we know that this group was doing this, and this group was doing this, and this group was doing this, and they were all giving updates to the CEO who then is like why are you not all working together.
Jen Otremba: Right, and kind of frustrated I think.
Bryan Strawser: We didn’t know, we didn’t know that they were doing this.
Jen Otremba: Yes. Yeah. That leadership can definitely get frustrated when they’re getting mixed information from multiple people that work for them.
Bryan Strawser: So once you have framework in place, you’ve got your decision making process, well then there is some obvious need to prepare for known issues with a hurricane. This is where I see even good companies kind of fall down. They have not thought through what do I need to do if a major hurricane is coming. Instead, they find themselves doing this after landfall when it is impossible to get these things done right out of the gate.
Jen Otremba: Right.
Bryan Strawser: This starts with how do you prepare your facility. What do you need to do? This is too complicated to get into a solution set here, it’s going to be very unique to your business, but it could be as simple as getting stuff off the floor, technology wise, in the event of flooding, but it could be more complicated like okay I have to board up, and I have to remove signing, and I need to bring in-
Jen Otremba: Preemptively turning off the power-
Bryan Strawser: That’s right.
Jen Otremba: Or moving generators into place where need be, or pre-positioning fuel and things like that.
Bryan Strawser: Right. Fuel is a big one because fuel drives the power situation. If you have generators, and you test those generators, and if those generators are undamaged and you have fuel, well now you have power and you can get back up and running if you need to do that. If you don’t have fuel but you have generators, what do you do when the fuel supply runs out. It’s cool if you’ve got natural gas because it’s an unlimited supply in theory, but if you’ve got to truck in diesel to run your generator, or fuel oil …
Jen Otremba: You might want to have a plan for that.
Bryan Strawser: You might want to have a plan for that, and you better make sure your provider has a plan for themselves to be able to recover as well.
Jen Otremba: Yeah, and having sort of a backup to the backup, so thinking through these things in advance as far as well what if we can’t get fuel right away, then what are we going to do. What are those most important things that we need to have power to, and what don’t we need to in a worst case scenario.
Bryan Strawser: There’s also the question about gasoline in terms of fuel to run your vehicles for your employees to get around. We’ve purchased fuel in the past and stored it using bladders and hand powered fuel pumps, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. That’s one where I think you’ve got really think through this. It is a big financial commitment up front, but you should decide if that’s something that you need because again post-storm you’re not going to be able to get it, not right away.
Jen Otremba: That’s not the time to be trying to come up with that plan.
Bryan Strawser: Right. Another area is communications. We see this, this wasn’t such of a big deal in Harvey and Irma because in the mainland getting access to that from the phone companies, and have them be able to ensure that their points of presence and their cell towers were powered, went fairly well, but this has been a big issue in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico because not as easy to access the equipment and resources that you have on the mainland. Understanding things like satellite phones, wireless priority access through DHS, and other alternate methods that are out there became important. In fact, it may become the only way that you can communicate, but those again are things you should think about in advance.
Jen Otremba: Right. Accountability is another thing. If we’re talking about after the fact and how are we going to get a hold of all of these people and find out if they’re okay, your employees, and how are we going to find out if everyone is accounted for, communication obviously plays a role in that, but also how are they going to let you know that they’re okay, what their status is, what they need from you if anything. How are you going to do that, and thinking through that beforehand obviously is one of those things. You won’t be able to reach them after.
Bryan Strawser: Right.
Jen Otremba: Not if the communication grid is down.
Bryan Strawser: No, and I think this is a challenge for one of our clients that’s in Puerto Rico. A small number of employees, but it took eight, nine days for them to account for everybody. The issue was they couldn’t get a hold of them because of the communication situation. Lack of power and lack of network meant that you couldn’t email and get an update, so it was very difficult to make contact.
Jen Otremba: Yeah, and I think it’s kind of understanding that it could take some time before you can get that accountability too. I mean we experienced that many times at our previous employer where in general it just can take some time before you’re able to reach them, even if the entire communication grid is up.
Bryan Strawser: Right.
Jen Otremba: They’re probably worried about taking care of themselves and their families at that time, so it might take some time.
Bryan Strawser: We’ve talked through this whole idea of preparedness, and it bleeds into response because a good set of preparedness enables you to be able to respond and move into recovery more quickly. You have the supplies and you’ve thought through the challenges that you’re likely to face, and you have a framework by which you’re going to make and escalate decisions and communicate the results of those decisions. I feel like this area is the biggest gap that I see, but the one that’s right behind it, it’s less important than preparedness, but I think goes right into the same thing, is this whole idea about plugging yourself into processes so that you can be informed as a company.
We talk about in personal preparedness the need to be informed by signing up for alerts and putting apps on your phone, and ways that you can know something is happening so that you can prepare and respond to that. This is really about companies plugging into emergency management and public safety agencies that share information before, during and after an incident that enable you to make smart decisions for your business. We see …
Jen Otremba: Right. They can plug you into resources as well.
Bryan Strawser: Absolutely. At the pinnacle of this is FEMA. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has a private sector office. Their job is to coordinate with the U.S. private sector. Now just imagine how big of a job that is. It’s a pretty small office, but they have done a phenomenal job during the hurricane season of pushing out information about having live dashboards available with chats where you can go in and ask questions, having daily calls between their office and resources, federal partners like for example for Maria the U.S. Department of Energy and the Army Corp of Engineers are on every call as is the Coast Guard about ports, FAA about aviation situation, and they’ve had all kinds of different folks on there. But the goal there is that you get plugged in where you can ask questions and get the information that you need. You want to know the gas situation in Puerto Rico, that’s where that information is coming from. You want to know about how the power grid, what the power grid restoration plan is, they talked about it on Sunday’s call, yesterday.
Jen Otremba: Daily right? They discuss this daily.
Bryan Strawser: Every day. I won’t say it’s always the most titillating conversation that you’ll ever be in, but …
Jen Otremba: No, but that’s where you can get the most accurate information of what’s actually going on and what the status is.
Bryan Strawser: If you want to learn more about that, go to FEMA’s website and search for private sector. You’ll find the private sector office along with the national business EOC. That’s what you want to sign up for in order to be on the conference calls and get on the dashboard, and have that kind of information at your disposal.
Jen Otremba: Yeah, and we’re on those calls every day, so you could also reach out to us for that matter.
Bryan Strawser: Right. Then I think just for companies to understand how the whole emergency management process works. That in any of these situations it’s the state and local government that’s in charge. FEMA exists to support them, logistics, funding, expertise, more resources than you could shake a stick at, but the governor makes the decisions. The mutual aid process is dependent upon the governor asking for resources through, usually through their head of emergency management, a professional leader, but I’ve seen a lot of criticism of FEMA in these hurricanes and it’s not really their fault so to speak. I don’t really care whose fault it is, but the process is the state territory is running the show, FEMA’s there to support. Of course FEMA can bring in all of the federal government agencies, DOD, HHS, the U.S. Department of Energy. I mean they can bring in significant resources, but they’re coming in at the governor’s request to make that happen.
Jen Otremba: Right, which is the case in any natural disaster.
Bryan Strawser: Right.
Jen Otremba: whether it’s-
Bryan Strawser: Doesn’t matter what the disaster is.
Jen Otremba: No matter where it is. Yes, exactly.
Bryan Strawser: That’s the way that it’s always going to work. There has to, you know they work together through unity of command, or at least that’s the theory. It doesn’t always translate quite that way.
Jen Otremba: Well that’s true.
Bryan Strawser: That’s how it’s supposed to be. We talked about, to kind of recap, we’ve talked about the need to prepare personally and for a company. The need for a framework, decision making process and a way to communicate the results of those decisions. Then how do you prepare for specific risks. With hurricanes, we outlined some things like power, fuel, communication, accountability for employees. Then second to be informed. That companies should plug into the emergency management process, local, state, federal, where you can go for FEMA information, and a little bit of understanding of how the process works.
I would also say in closing that any other process you have in your organization around managing a disruption, or an incident, or a crisis should all be plugged into this approach, through this crisis framework so that there’s one way in which your company deals with disruptions. Then everyone will be used to dealing with things in that way with the communication that comes with it.