When survivors of Hurricane Katrina began arriving at the Houston Astrodome in September 2005, they were met by a contingent of local and state government employees, contractors, and charity workers charged with helping get food and blankets to the refugees there. However, other help was also in evidence. For example, one group held a sign that towered over the crowd. The sign read, “Starbucks partners report here.”
Every company employee who reported to the group was given a job at another Starbucks in the area until the stores at which they worked, which had been damaged by the hurricane, were again operational. They also received cash stipends in addition to their salaries to help them with expenses. (If the employees wanted to relocate, Starbucks worked to find them a permanent position in the new location.) The company also assisted the displaced in finding a place to stay.
Not far away was a station set up by employees of CVS drug stores. The employees were accessing the company’s national database to research and fill prescriptions for customers, free of charge.
Both companies had flexible disaster management plans that allowed room for improvisational problem solving and empowered employees to act.
Other companies didn’t plan ahead. Back in Louisiana, for example, a major company had petitioned the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide housing for its employees who had arrived from out of state to help fix damaged facilities and equipment. This was initially denied because, by law, FEMA may only provide housing for disaster victims. It took a great deal of time to work out an arrangement for the company to rent temporary housing; such considerations should have been covered in the corporate disaster management plan.
Why were some companies unprepared to provide the most basic necessities for their employees while others not only survived the catastrophe but also excelled at helping others? There’s a simple answer: Some companies devote resources to planning, training, and conducting disaster response and recovery drills—and some do not.
At the most basic level, businesses should follow the laws and regulations that govern disaster preparedness in their industry. However, compliance with these laws and regulations will not, by itself, ensure that a company is prepared.
After-action reports from disasters and my personal experience with emergencies around the United States have indicated that there are five major operational issues that merit special attention in a disaster response: communication, chain of command, use of volunteer resources, establishment of priorities, and media relationships. By identifying and focusing additional disaster planning and exercises around these particular issues, I believe communities and companies will be better prepared to handle any type of emergency.