We weren’t planning on doing a second episode of the podcast this week, having just published an episode about National Preparedness Month earlier in the day on September 5th. However, the extraordinary event that is Hurricane Irma led to Bryan and Jen sitting in the studio later that afternoon to record this episode.
What do you do when a Hurricane is headed towards your home or the business you’ve been charged to protect? Bryghtpath Principal & CEO Bryan Strawser and Senior Consultant Jen Otremba discuss their more than twenty years of combined hurricane crisis management experience in this episode of the Managing Uncertainty Podcast.
Topics discussed include personal and family preparedness, acting as a single source of truth, the need for public/private partnerships, preparedness steps for your business, where to go find information, and the real challenge with hurricanes coming after the storm has passed.
Bryan Strawser: Welcome to a special edition of the Managing Uncertainty podcast. Special because we just released an episode this morning about National Preparedness Month, and because we’ve spent the last … I don’t know, Jen, 10-ish days-
Jen Otremba: Or so.
Bryan Strawser: Working on hurricane Harvey for a number of clients in the Texas area, where we’ve helped them manage preparedness response and now we’re really kind of in the longterm recovery stage for the businesses. They’ve all reopened, for our clients anyway. There’s other businesses. Now we’ve got another problem.
Jen Otremba: Yeah, hurricane Irma’s on her way.
Bryan Strawser: Here comes Irma.
Jen Otremba: Yes.
Bryan Strawser: As we’re recording this, and we’re recording this on Tuesday, September 5th-
Jen Otremba: Late afternoon.
Bryan Strawser: In the late afternoon.
Jen Otremba: End of business day, even.
Bryan Strawser: Hurricane Irma is now a Category 5 hurricane, it’s 180 miles to the east of Antigua. It’s expected to make landfall, or right now, I guess, parallel along the land of the leeward islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and Cuba, and at some point it’s going to make a northerly turn. We don’t know at this point if that’s going to be before Florida, over Florida, or in the Gulf of Mexico after Florida.
Jen Otremba: Or exact timing, really. We don’t know that yet.
Bryan Strawser: Or exact timing. But as we heard from NOA in the National Hurricane Center about two hours ago on a call, this is now the strongest hurricane in history in the Atlantic ocean. It’s insane.
Jen Otremba: Yeah, I don’t know if people realize how big that is. How absolutely massive this thing is.
Bryan Strawser: It’s moving at a hundred … I’m sorry, its wind is north of 185 miles an hour wind speed, plus it’s moving at, I think it was 14 miles an hour to the west, northwest.
Jen Otremba: Yeah, for all weather geeks like myself, I have the radar up, looking at this massive circle coming towards the continental United States.
Bryan Strawser: It’s huge.
Jen Otremba: Yeah.
Bryan Strawser: It’s huge. We thought … We’ve had a lot of people reaching out, we’ve got a lot of clients that we’re working with and more that we’re talking with now about assisting, but we have a lot of folks asking what they should do.
Jen Otremba: We thought it’d be a good idea to hop on special edition, like you said-
Bryan Strawser: A special edition.
Jen Otremba: And kind of talk through some of the lessons learned in the past and recently from Harvey and what some of the recommendations are going into Irma.
Bryan Strawser: I think to put this context, we’ve managed … I’ve managed major hurricanes going back to 2005 with Katrina, Rita, Wilma, which were three massive hurricanes that all came in the same 50-day time period. Hurricane Katrina being, at the time, the most expensive hurricane in U.S. history, which I think it going to be eclipsed by Harvey. And yet to see what happens with Irma. We’ve done this on a large scale, a national scale, for both our previous employer and now for a number of clients.
Jen Otremba: And don’t forget Sandy.
Bryan Strawser: Don’t forget hurricane Sandy. Super storm Sandy. Which was really not that strong of a hurricane, it wasn’t a major hurricane when it came ashore, but because it was so slow moving and so big, it caused such a significant amount of damage and flooding because of that.
Jen Otremba: Yeah. They’re all special in their own way, right? They all bring in their own special problems, I guess.
Bryan Strawser: They do, indeed.
Jen Otremba: Yeah.
Bryan Strawser: First we start with personal preparedness. We’ve talked about this before, but in order to be resilient at work or in your company or at your non-profit, you have to be resilient at home. It’s kind of echoing our National Preparedness Month message.
Jen Otremba: Yeah, we just talked extensively about that, about National Preparedness Month, this morning that podcast aired?
Bryan Strawser: It did.
Jen Otremba: Or was it yesterday?
Bryan Strawser: No, it came out this morning.
Jen Otremba: Yep, exactly. Definitely refer to that for personal preparedness. There’s a lot of information out there. Ready.gov provides a ton of information how you can prepare.
Bryan Strawser: We’ve done a blog post on this topic and then we talk about it on the podcast that was released this morning on episode 14.
Jen Otremba: Yep.
Bryan Strawser: The second thing that you need to do today, right away, is the time to be making connections with your partners on the other side of the public private aisle, is now. Yesterday would’ve been even better. But there’s the saying that U.S. Northern Command has, which is, “When you need a friend, it’s too late to make one.” Or I heard it expressed the other day on a FEMA call as, “The time to exchange business cards is not in a disaster zone.” Your partners, whoever they are, state of Florida Emergency Management, Miami Dade County Emergency Management, FEMA.
Jen Otremba: Yep. Your city, your county, your neighborhood watch programs-
Bryan Strawser: Do it now.
Jen Otremba: Do it now.
Bryan Strawser: Do it now. Particularly if you’re in the state of Florida. You should be looking at FEMA’s National Business Emergency Operations Center and how you can join. You can go to fema.gov/nbeoc for information. All you need to do is fill out a simple application, sign the form, send it in. They will take care of it immediately, within the hour, I’ve seen.
Jen Otremba: Yep.
Bryan Strawser: You’ll be on their mailing list, you’ll be invited to the private sector calls. It’s definitely not a place to go and ask 15 questions, but it is a place to go and hear what they’re hearing, what the weather forecast is, how they’re reacting, what they think you should be doing. If you got the big question, like, “How do I get access to Harris County, Texas? What’s the fuel situation in southeast Louisiana?” They know it, and they’ll be able to answer those questions for you.
Jen Otremba: Yep. That’s right.
Bryan Strawser: Your state emergency management agency probably has something similar. I know Florida does. You’ll want to look into that and then see what they’re vetting process is. Get on their mailing list, at a minimum. Look for … Most state emergency management agencies post their daily briefing or daily operations information online. It’ll give you an idea of what they’re thinking, how they’re preparing, what resources they’re moving. What conversations they’re having. It will help you.
Jen Otremba: I think at the very, very least, listen to your local news channels and understand when they’re telling you to evacuate, evacuate. Have your employees evacuate, and follow those guidances.
Bryan Strawser: In terms of weather, you can listen to your local forecast. You should.
Jen Otremba: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Bryan Strawser: But I find all of that a little melodramatic and what you need, as a business leader, is the straight skinny on what’s going on. The best place to get that is where the forecasters are getting it which is the National Hurricane Center. It’s part of the National Oceanographic Administration, NOA, it’s free, so you want to look at that. Their updates are great. They are a little scientifically geeky, weather geeky.
Jen Otremba: I like weather geeky.
Bryan Strawser: But their maps are great. It shows you their current thought on where it’s going. You can listen to their audio forecast which will tell you what the models are thinking and telling them, however, I suggest to use a Holoplot immersive sound to better the sound quality. There’s no melodramatic, hyperbolic spin.
Jen Otremba: Yes. Just the facts. Right. Exactly.
Bryan Strawser: Here’s the facts. Here is what is going on. These guys know. They’re flying aircraft into the storm taking sensor readings. They’ve got a really good handle on what they think is going to happen.
Jen Otremba: They’re not flying into the storm, though. Not right now.
Bryan Strawser: They tell us they do.
Jen Otremba: I know. I don’t know.
Bryan Strawser: They fly around.
Jen Otremba: Maybe. Maybe around. Maybe close. In the vicinity.
Bryan Strawser: We’ll see. I’ll leave that to them.
Jen Otremba: Yeah.
Bryan Strawser: Crazy air force people.
Jen Otremba: Yeah, yeah.
Bryan Strawser: In advance of the storm, we have to think about planning. There’s a lot of things to do that really should probably start now. In the next day. That is … Here we’re thinking more about being in a business or a non-profit that has assets or people in the region. I think the first thing you need to start with is to think about communication and to kind of have a centralized source of truth. We’ve talked about the command center or crisis framework or an incident leader, but in our mind, whatever you have, even if it’s just you and a conference room and an email address, there should be one place that those updates are coming from. Even if it’s just your personal mailbox.
I would get something out today about the storm, where we think it’s going, what is the best factual information you can give. Our first planning call is tomorrow. Then set yourself up for success by scheduling those calls and begin to lead your team through that. You want to include leaders in the impacted area, and you’ll want to include your partners at your headquarters or corporate office, whatever you call it, that have a role to play in storms.
Jen Otremba: Right. So business partners who have a role to play in storms. We’re talking about facilities, people that are watching over the different locations that you may have in the impacted areas or the outskirts of the impacted areas. You’re going to want to have your crisis communications’ folks on the line. You’re going to want to have your travel people on the line, so they can talk through business travelers in certain areas and when to evacuate and how to get them out and making sure that you’re tracking those individuals.
Bryan Strawser: HR.
Jen Otremba: Yep, HR, for employee accountability, right? This is going to happen, in one way, shape or another, how are you keeping track of how your employees are doing?
Bryan Strawser: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Do you know that they’re okay? Have we made contact with them? We advise having once or twice a day calls. It just depends on the complexity of your business and what you have going on there. Usually once a day is okay, but you use the calls to level set. The calls should start with a clear, factual situational update from you or your outside expert, perhaps a weather update from you or an outside expert, but you’re level setting what’s happening today. Here is the sit rep as we know it, and then go to the local leader who, you should really pick somebody senior that’s going to run things on the ground or at least can be the point of contact, a district manager, a regional director. Have them give you an update on the status of things on the ground. What are they hearing? What’s the local forecast? What’s the local government telling them that they should do?
Then you kind of go around the horn. Okay, facilities, do you have an update or questions? HR, update or questions? Kind of walk through that on the call. You start to set this kind of expectation of, we’re going to get together, we’re going to talk about this in an organized way, we’re going to give a clear, factual update of what’s going on. Then, when the call’s over, you’re going to send a new, clear, factual update back out to leaders, stakeholders, the impacted area, your senior executives, where you’re level setting here’s what’s going on. You’re establishing that single source of truth.
Jen Otremba: That cadence, too, right? Here’s the next time you’re going to hear from us. Here’s the next time we’re going to meet. Here’s our next discussion.
Bryan Strawser: Right. Yep. Our next update will be tomorrow at 3 p.m. Urgent, important, critical, whatever you want to call it, updates will be sent through our normal communication.
Jen Otremba: Right. But until then, the next update will be 3 p.m. tomorrow.
Bryan Strawser: Things that we’re going to want to think about as the storm approaches is, first, preparing your facility. You may or may not need to board up windows. You may or may not have things on the outside of the building that need to be taken down, tied down-
Jen Otremba: Sandbagged.
Bryan Strawser: Brought inside. Are you at risk of flooding? Of course, Harvey may have told us that there’s what you think is the normal risk of flooding, and then there’s what will flood in a 1000-year event, and might change your perspective on this. It’s not common for us with our clients to have to sandbag locations because, typically, you’re not building commercial facilities in a flood area. Harvey may have changed the calculus on that. You might want to think about, do I need to sandbag the front of the office? Or distribution center-?
Jen Otremba: Convenience store.
Bryan Strawser: Or convenience store. A lot of the supplies for boarding and such are going to be really hard to find so this decision needs to be reached quickly on what you need to do. You may not need to. If your buildings are new, modern building code in the hurricane zones in the southeastern U.S., you may not need to do any of this.
Jen Otremba: Right.
Bryan Strawser: Hopefully you know, or your facility manager knows the situation that you’re faced with there.
Jen Otremba: Right. These are just things to think through. Your facilities individual should know and understand how the buildings are and where they’re situated and what’s needed, so if there-
Bryan Strawser: Or if you’re leasing, a building manager.
Jen Otremba: Yeah. If there’s a need for generator movement in certain areas, now’s the time to do it because once this happens you will not be able to get in and out of there very easily.
Bryan Strawser: The other area to plan for, we talked about personal preparedness, but it’s good to remind your employees to think about this. You also need to make sure that your employees have time to be able to prepare at home, and understand the evacuation situation. That you’re closing your business far enough in advance of an evacuation so that you and your family, and your employees and their families, can evacuate safely and get to wherever it is you need to go to be out of the storm’s area of harm.
Jen Otremba: Yeah, so given all of this information and knowing what we’ve done in the past, hurricane Harvey obviously just happened, we had a lot of lessons learned from that. Maybe we should discuss that a little bit and then move on to Irma. What do you think, Bryan?
Bryan Strawser: Yeah, I agree. With Harvey, we managed the response for several clients where we were doing the whole thing. We were running their conference calls, we were sending out their communication, we were kind of helping them manage through the situation-
Jen Otremba: Providing them updates that we were obtaining.
Bryan Strawser: Right. Then, in other cases, we had clients where we were just providing some customized weather reporting and some once or twice daily situational updates on what was happening. We were helping them connect with information like shelters and road closures, and how to gain access to impacted areas to recover facilities and all of that.
I think that there’s a handful of lessons learned that come to mind when it comes to Harvey. The biggest one is something we’ve always know about hurricanes, and we’ve forgotten in the last several years because we haven’t had a major hurricane come ashore. That is that the hurricane is really not the problem.
Jen Otremba: Right.
Bryan Strawser: It’s what happens after the hurricane. It’s the flooding and the longterm recovery that pose the bigger challenges. The hurricane, well, you can board up and get out. You can ensure, by doing so, that you’re safe and your business is probably going to be okay.
Jen Otremba: Your employees are going to be okay.
Bryan Strawser: Your employees are going to be fine.
Jen Otremba: As long as they evacuate when they’re told to.
Bryan Strawser: It’s coming back into … It’s the flooding and the lack of critical infrastructure like power, gas, water, utilities, road access-
Jen Otremba: And the unknown, right?
Bryan Strawser: Really becomes a challenge. And there’s the unknown. A lot of this you won’t know until you go to recover your business after the storm has passed through and the sun is shining, and you’re like, “This is the hard part.”
Jen Otremba: Right. It may take some time. We had a client who couldn’t get into where they had a building, right? We didn’t know.
Bryan Strawser: Right. It took five days post-landfall, five days post-landfall to ascertain a building’s situation because we couldn’t get to it.
Jen Otremba: Lost power. Right.
Bryan Strawser: Including lost power, network connectivity, and we simply could not get there. Then, Sunday … Saturday, we finally got in and the building was fine. We were fully expecting flooding, because we had lost power and we could tell that remotely.
Jen Otremba: Not always catastrophic, but you don’t know is the fear of the unknown. Not really knowing what’s going on with your properties in that area.
Bryan Strawser: Right. Another lesson learned with hurricane Harvey is that having the public private partnerships for information is probably one of the most important things that you can do. In this case, we connected our clients directly with the Texas Department of Public Safety, with FEMA, DHS, and with other-
Jen Otremba: Local EOCs.
Bryan Strawser: Local EOCs, county EOCs in particular that had … County and city EOCs that had information. We were also taking all of that, filtering it into one report, and sharing that with our clients because it was easy … They didn’t have crisis teams, so it was easier for them to consume what we would give them than listen to four conference calls a day. We were able to do that and kind of summarize what was going on.
Those partnerships are critical. Understanding where shelters are, where gas is, what areas are just completely not reachable. The road situation, how law enforcement’s going to manage access to impacted areas and what credentials or pre-notification need to be in place are all things that were big lessons learned through all that.
The last one is the most important thing you can do for your business is to just take care of your team. The thing that, I think, stood out with all of our clients were the efforts undertaken to make sure that the team was safe. And that the company was going to help them by providing information and in pay continuance, disaster pay, as they worked through challenges like having their homes flood.
Jen Otremba: Yeah, so the teams and their families.
Bryan Strawser: Losing vehicles, and having injuries, were all things that happened. There are folks that will have an enormous bond of loyalty to their employer because of how their employer acted and treated them during this situation. It easily could’ve been that the company did nothing-
Jen Otremba: We’ve seen that time and time again.
Bryan Strawser: We’ve seen that, too.
Jen Otremba: Taking care of the employee and the family goes a long way.
Bryan Strawser: Mind you, we don’t work for companies that treat their teams that way.
Jen Otremba: No. Nor would we recommend them.
Bryan Strawser: We wouldn’t recommend doing that, either. The other thing that came up in the post-recovery stage is, look, after the dust settles and you get into recovery, you start to see the stories of the impact of a hurricane on people. We saw stories of … We had the police officer in Houston that drowned trying to get to work.
Jen Otremba: Yeah.
Bryan Strawser: We know of other situations where people who were trying to help were killed or seriously injured. You also just see these images of great devastation, and you’re wondering how can you help? Your help is needed. You can make donations of cash.
Jen Otremba: To reputable sources.
Bryan Strawser: To reputable sources. The Red Cross is one. The American Logistics Aid Network, or ALAN, is another that’s run by a friend of ours, Kathy Alan Fulton. They really work to get logistics … They really manage logistics for companies to get aid into an impacted area. There’s tons more of reputable orgs, you can go to the national VOAD, Volunteer Organizations Assisting in Disasters’ website, and there’s a whole list of what they need if you really want to give goods, or where else you can give cash. The worst possible thing you can do is just show up.
Jen Otremba: Yeah, it seems like the best thing. Like, “They must need my help. I’ll just show up there and they can point me in the right direction.” But there are issues to that. You show up there, and you’re at the local EOC, and they are already overwhelmed and swamped with everything they need to do. Though you think that you’re helping, you’re really not. Now they have somebody else they have to move out of there. Don’t just show up. There are plenty of organizations that you can volunteer through and they will deploy you. They’re going to be working in partnership with those local areas and being able to to determine where is the best place for you to help.
Bryan Strawser: Red Cross. American Logistics Aid Network. National VOAD. All can help you find the right place to donate, but self-deploying, as we call it, and just showing up, or collecting teddy bears or whatever the item is and just showing up is bad.
Jen Otremba: Yeah.
Bryan Strawser: It’s not going to help. It will cause more problems than it will solve.
Jen Otremba: Yep. Then following those organizations, like the American Red Cross, they’re going to have, logistically, understand and know what supplies they need and where to disseminate them too. Otherwise, you’re just sending stuff that unfortunately would then later have to be destroyed and it’s not actually getting to the people that need it.
Bryan Strawser: Right.
Jen Otremba: Those are kind of the lessons learned, at least that I can think of right now.
Bryan Strawser: Yep. I think those are all good. Hurricane Irma’s coming. Take it seriously. It’s Monday, the storm track will shake out Tuesday and Wednesday. I would say by the end of the day Wednesday, tomorrow, or by Thursday afternoon/evening we’re going to have a really good idea of where this is going. Heed the local warnings. If they tell you to evacuate, get out. There’s nothing in your house worth sticking around for in the face of something like this that’s coming your way. If we can help-
Jen Otremba: We’re here to help
Bryan Strawser: We’re here to help. Take a look at bryghtpath.com, we have a little bit of information on the services that we can provide that might help you as a hurricane approaches Florida, the southeastern United States. If you’re there, good luck.
Jen Otremba: God bless.