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Fall Journal

Volume 32, Issue 3

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hurricane-readThe human factor in commercial hurricane readiness is critical, especially since damage from a hurricane may be widespread.

Tell me and I’ll forget
Show me and I may remember
Involve me and I’ll understand.

– Chinese Proverb

“People are our most important asset” is a common phrase, but business continuity planning traditionally looks at operations, infrastructure, information technology, and security – focusing on critical business function and work process recovery. The impact on the workforce often is not adequately considered, thus downplaying the importance – and central role – of the human contribution to an organization’s recovery.

The human factor in commercial hurricane readiness is critical, especially since damage from a hurricane may be widespread. The likelihood of damage is not limited to a commercial establishment or operations but also extends to the community infrastructure, homes of employees, and services upon which all may depend. Employees often have to make choices between business needs and personal obligations following a hurricane. These may present obstacles or delays in fulfilling their employment responsibilities.

The challenge is for public-sector organizations, private-sector businesses, and non-profit groups to plan ahead for operational and employee resilience in order to ensure employee availability and functionality during periods of critical need.

The Hurricane Risk

About 53 percent of Americans live within 50 miles of a coast, and this will likely increase given the popularity of the hurricane-prone Gulf and Atlantic coastlines. According to AIR Worldwide, the insured value of all coastal property from Maine to Texas was $8.9 trillion in 2007, up 24 percent from $7.2 trillion in 2004.

Unlike earthquakes and tornadoes, hurricanes generally do not strike without warning. This means businesses may have a limited amount of time to verify and check critical elements of their disaster plan. However, it is always a “best practice” to update and rehearse all plans on a regular basis.

Businesses are only as strong as their human resources

Understanding and acknowledging risk, deciding to do something about it, and building employee buy-in and commitment are all people-centric undertakings. I would like to offer the following guidance about how to fully integrate the human factor into hurricane preparedness while building employee confidence that their employer truly understands and values their contribution and takes their needs into account. All of this will contribute to the success of a disaster preparedness and business continuity plan, recovery following a major interruption, and employment stability, all of which are critical factors in employee loyalty and economic recovery.

Pre-disaster (planning phase)

  • Communicate expectations

Employees want to know, “What do you expect of me?”

  • Employee handbook: Incorporate discussion of the organization’s plan for emergency response and business continuity as well as expectations of employees. Include employee responsibility to notify management of any unsafe conditions on the premises.
  • Employee orientation: Incorporate expectations of the employee during and following a business disruption; conversely, explain what your company plans to do to help employees meet their obligations.
  • Staff meetings: Periodically include information about the business continuity plan and expectations of employees. To heighten awareness and understanding, provide a brief checklist of possible impacts from various scenarios depending on the location, e.g., a hurricane on the coast.
  • Education and training: Educate employees on the emergency response and business continuity plan and train them in their areas of responsibility. Periodic tests of the plans, ranging from table-top exercises to departmental or full-scale exercises are essential to determine what works, what needs to be fixed, and how to maintain the plan.

Consider sending one or more employees for Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training, which includes basic emergency response skills. You also could consider training employees who volunteer to be available for their colleagues in such areas as emotional first aid, communication, and listening skills.

  • Preparedness at home: Encourage employees to have an emergency preparedness plan for their families; to plan for “business continuity” of their own household; and to strengthen their homes to withstand the effects of natural hazard events to which they are exposed.
  • Develop a crisis communication plan.

Recognizing that a comprehensive business continuity plan includes crisis communications with a wide range of parties (e.g., vendors, business partners, media), the focus here is on employees.

  • Employee contact information: Maintain current contact information for employees, including multiple ways to reach them – e.g., land line, cell phone, text messaging, e-mail, in-state and out-of-state points of contact. This information could be used for a call tree or an outsourced emergency notification system.
  • Web site or toll-free telephone number: Set up a Web site or Intranet where information can be regularly updated for employees – e.g., who reports to work, where and when to report, where employees should direct questions, and when and where more details on the incident will be available. Also, provide capability for employees to enter their status, availability, and needs. (Internet connectivity may be lacking. Employers may need a paper bulletin board for basic or cryptic messages to and from employees.)
  • Using personal Facebook and Twitter accounts: Utilize these social media tools to keep in touch and to monitor local conditions. This communication can be a two-way street where employees are monitoring conditions near them that may affect their capacity to fulfill their responsibilities.
  • Emergency wallet cards: Develop and distribute wallet cards that include emergency information specific to the business, as well as police, fire, hospital, etc.

Determine personnel policies

Develop and publish personnel policies ahead of time that address pay/benefits/aid to employees. In the long run, it is more cost effective to keep your current employees than to hire and train new ones. Clearly communicate these policies to employees.

  • If your organization is shut down temporarily, will some or all employees continue to be paid? For how long?
  • May employees draw on their sick and vacation time without restriction?
  • If banks are closed, will you provide payroll-cashing services?
  • Will you provide cash advances, check cashing, or employee loans?

Have alternatives in place to deal with employee availability issues.

  • Cross-train employees for key tasks.
  • Have a signed contract for temporary hires.
  • Make provisions for employees to work from home where feasible.

Emergency response (when the event occurs)

Employee life and safety: The safety of your employees and visitors to your premises is your first responsibility. Knowing where each employee is and how to contact them is essential, as well as the presence of any visitors to the building. Although it is likely that many businesses will have closed their doors and sent employees home when a hurricane warning occurs, there are some situations where employees are considered essential and must stay on site. In that case, employer responsibilities include:

  • Clear procedures for evacuation
  • Accounting for each person
  • Provision of emergency supplies if employees must stay on the premises – e.g., first aid kit, bedding, non-perishable food items, bottled water
  • Emergency care before professional help arrives

Post-disaster (resumption of business operations)

  • Communicate with employees about when they are expected to return to work and where they should go (e.g., an alternative location if their regular worksite has been severely damaged). Be as flexible as possible to respond to employees’ personal situations following a disaster – a great morale booster and a key to continued employee loyalty.
  • Based on a pre-determined company policy, coordinate employee assistance for those most impacted. The assistance could include emergency food, emergency cash, payroll advances, transportation assistance, and help finding temporary housing and/or child care.
  • Recognize that meeting some basic “comfort” needs can be an incentive for employees to come to work, e.g., air conditioning provided by a generator, food, water – all things they may not have at home.
  • Be sensitive to employees’ emotional needs and reactions as they go through the various stages of coping with disaster. To paraphrase Gerald Lewis, an international organizational consultant and trainer, needs are different during the immediate survival phase, the aftermath where there is an extensive social and community support network, the period of adjustment where the assumption is that things should be getting back to normal, and then reconciliation with what happened and decisions about moving forward in a changed environment or context.

Post Recovery (long-term recovery issues)

  • Based on a pre-determined personnel policy, implement assistance such as:
    • extension of benefits even if an employee is not working
    • extended leave/time off
    • l financial help
  • Recognize employee contributions during and following an event – give credit where credit is due.


Businesses are only as strong as their human resources. A company’s ability to survive and thrive after a hurricane is dependent on the human factor in all aspects of planning, response, and recovery.

Diana McClure is a business resiliency program manager for Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety. McClure is responsible for the development and implementation of IBHS’ business resiliency program. Prior to joining IBHS, she worked for Rhode Island Sea Grant at the University of Rhode Island Coastal Resources Center and was a mitigation specialist with FEMA Region I, traveling throughout the U.S. to help communities recover from natural disasters. She has a master’s degree from Boston College and a bachelor’s from Brown University.