As the impacts of Tropical Storm Isaias dissipate over the east coast— we must face the unappealing reality this hurricane season is likely going to get much worse. The 2020 Atlantic basin hurricane season is the first on record in which nine tropical systems have formed before August.
The main ingredients which drive hurricanes — warm surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean, high humidity, and light vertical wind shear — are expected to persist or increase throughout the season. Researchers at the NOAA recently updated their forecast, stating by the end of hurricane season we can expect a total of 19 to 24 named storms with a 75% chance at least one major hurricane (a category 3-4-5) strikes the U.S. coast.
To further complicate the matter, many of the states most likely to face a major hurricane are also facing the highest rates of new COVID cases. While FEMA is still focused on fighting the escalating pandemic, they have also strongly cautioned state, local, territorial and tribal (SLTT) governments, individuals, and businesses should prepare now to respond to a hurricane. As the peak of hurricane season approaches, it is imperative we understand both how this hurricane season will be different from past seasons and what that means for businesses as they prepare.
How will COVID-19 impact Hurricane Response?
The unfortunate reality is the ongoing pandemic will significantly complicate nearly every aspect of hurricane response and recovery. Governments at all levels are preparing to face the daunting task of providing emergency management support during an ongoing pandemic. Community partners such as non-profit organizations and businesses upon whom we typically rely to help our communities recover are also facing operational and resource constraints which may prevent them from bringing their full capability to bear in the response and recovery efforts. Communities across Texas, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and Puerto Rico are particularly vulnerable as they struggle complete restoration projects from previous hurricane seasons delayed due to COVID. As these issues merge to create an exceptionally complex operational environment, it is important to consider what this new and challenging landscape could mean for your business in the coming months.
A changing and complex “Whole Community” response built upon a constrained resource environment will likely lead to extended periods of disruption
While the federal government started this hurricane season with a record setting $80 billion in the disaster relief fund thanks to the CARES act, there will still be major challenges posed by COVID-19 which are not easily solved through funding alone. FEMA’s COVID-19 Pandemic Operational Guidance for the 2020 Hurricane Season cautions there will need to be adaptations at all levels of the nation’s emergency management systems to effectively respond to a major storm amidst an ongoing response to COVID-19.
The guidance again reminded state and local governments they should expect to lead the response with a limited set of resources and guidance from Federal agencies. In hopes of minimizing risk to their personnel, FEMA plans to limit new field deployments of additional personnel in response to hurricanes, effectively limiting the deployed resources to personnel already residing in or deployed to the disaster impacted areas and remote consultations.
Many state and local governments are facing resource constraints due to the ongoing response to COVID-19, must now reimagine their approach to many traditional hurricane response activities. Evacuations, sheltering, and damage assessments are critical activities to ensure the safety of citizens during a hurricane. Historically, these activities disproportionally support lower income individuals who cannot self-evacuate or have limited mobility due to sickness or age. All of these critical activities must rapidly redesigned to accommodate fewer available resources and mitigate the spread of COVID while still meeting the needs of their population; a population which is both sicker and less mobile than in previous years. Emergency managers must also coordinate these changes from emergency operations centers which were not designed for a pandemic, forcing many organizations to quickly adapt their approaches to coordinate remotely.
Non-governmental, non-profit, and community-based organizations which increasingly provide resources and capabilities to support disaster response are also reevaluating their operations. Many of these organizations are facing fundraising shortages and are struggling to find volunteers willing and able to deploy to a disaster zone in this environment. Additionally, volunteer organizations which often provide key capabilities during a disaster, such as Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) and the Red Cross have struggled to provide the requisite training and identify volunteers who pass their medical clearance process.
Those involved at all levels of emergency management have had to quickly design and implement significant changes to their response and recovery processes, while continuing to support the ongoing response to a pandemic. Most organizations have not had enough time to truly exercise or stress test their refined plans and processes, creating additional uncertainty which could directly impact our ability to effectively respond and recover from a major hurricane. Any response to a hurricane under these conditions — characterized by constrained resources, new response and recovery processes, and an increasingly complex operating environment — will likely mean longer waits for assistance and ultimately greater disruptions (in terms of time and scale).
(Re)Assessing your supply chain and critical dependencies
COVID-19 has structurally altered the US economy, diving nearly 33% in the second quarter of this year and leading the World Bank to project the impending recession may be the worst since World War II. Within this operating environment, many businesses are struggling to adapt to an ever changing “new normal,” supply chains have become stressed, and all are focused on rapidly changing the way we work. Businesses have also shifted their business models and operations in response to the pandemic, altering their risk environment. New or refined operating models changes the criticality of our supply chains and other internal/external dependencies. A common example of this is the increased importance of technology supporting remote work, an essential for most businesses in recent months. The increased reliance on critical applications, VPN, and data centers could mean outages may more severely impact your operations. The rapid shifts in consumer demand and behavior has created a dynamic operating environment, one many were not prepared for. For many manufacturing and distribution companies, the transition from a B2B to a direct to consumer model, has fundamentally changed the relative importance of the critical resources upon which businesses rely.
Many of our essential third-parties are also struggling to respond to COVID-19 and the impending threat of hurricanes. Supply chains continue to be stressed, delays and shortages are common. The focus on keeping their proverbial “heads above water” has prevented many organizations from not only preparing for the hurricane season, but communicating with their key stakeholders, to ensure they understand how their response plans and processes could impact your own operations. The possibility a hurricane will threaten the viability of businesses which are already struggling is very much a real one.
In the aftermath of a severe storm, we rely upon not only first responders, but also a number of essential “life line” services/infrastructure providers to help restore our communities. This is typically implemented through a collaborative effort between businesses (utility providers) executing pre-existing mutual aid agreements to support the restoration of services in impacted areas. However, due to the ongoing response to COVID, resources are overextended, and we can expect a delay in surge resources and personnel (if they are available at all).
Due to the ongoing focus on response to COVID, the increased resource requirements, and potential challenges with keeping their workforce safe, you should expect disruptions to facilities and communities impacted by a hurricane will last longer than usual. Many organizations have not had time to review and refine their plans. Failure to update the facts and assumptions upon which they built their plans, will result in challenges to their responses and recoveries. Difficulties staging response personnel and resources due to social distancing requirements, competing for personal protective equipment (PPE) and communications challenges will further complicate an already complex response.
Will your crisis management and business continuity processes be effective?
Most organizations have settled into a “new normal” and are productively working in a remote work environment, or with limited on-site support; however, managing a crisis or restoring essential services and operations in this environment is a wholly different challenge. It requires clear, transparent communication across all levels of the business (to include key external stakeholders) and defined roles and responsibilities. Has your crisis response and business recovery teams managed a response virtually? If not, expect there will be some initial coordination and collaboration challenges which will need to be overcome. These challenges may be further frustrated if your network is impacted by a storm or employees lose power.
Due to changes in response requirements and the operating environment, many of the facts and assumptions plans were built upon may no longer be valid. Consider, if your plan relies upon a third-party service provider to clean up and/or restore a damaged facility. Will they still able to perform this duty as rapidly if they have staff which is out sick or can’t find PPE? What is your backup plan if they are unavailable? Do you have alternate vendors? Could you train staff to execute some of these tasks internally? Can you shift production or provide PPE for vendors? Exploring these options have become a necessity.
Taking care of your people should always be a priority but it should be even more important this year as research shows during a protracted disaster, employees who feel supported are more likely to stay with the business, are more productive, and are better problem-solvers. However, it is not easy to be supportive and empathetic in a virtual environment. Employers may struggle with keeping track of where their employees are physically located and whether they are in the storm’s path, evacuated, or available for work. This isn’t an easy task during normal times, but especially difficult as employees (and key stakeholders) may have temporarily relocated themselves during the pandemic. In other words, even those businesses who think they have little risk of hurricanes as they (and their staff) typically reside outside of areas threatened by storms may require contingency plans. Further, your staff which does reside in an area threatened by a hurricane may face difficulties evacuating and may be asked by local governments to remain in areas without power or network rather than relocating, inhibiting their ability to work and your ability to communicate with them.
Proactively preparing for a hurricane during an ongoing pandemic
While the challenges posed by hurricanes as we continue to respond to the ongoing pandemic are real and may even seem daunting, there are four initial actions which can help to better prepare your business and teams.
First, convince executives this is a substantial challenge government agencies, other businesses, and non-profits will also have to deal with. This article is a start, but additional research to understand how the communities in which you operation will be impacted is likely required. As of Aug. 9, 2020, there have been five landfalls of named storms – two each in Texas and North Carolina and one in New Jersey. What can you learn from these storms? Did you have people, operations, or key stakeholders impacted? What would be different if the next storm was much more severe and has regional impacts.
Next, because your COVID response has changed the way both your organization and key stakeholders operate, you need to review and update your plans and supporting processes. The facts and assumptions underlying your plans have likely changed since you developed, exercised, or executed them. Specifically, you should consider the following:
- What role does government and other external partners plan in your response and recovery plans? Understand they are adapting their approach so you should communicate with them to understand what this might mean for you.
- Do your plans include assumptions about the length of critical infrastructure and services outages? If so, you may need to re-evaluate them for this hurricane season as we can expect to see longer outages.
- Have you confirmed the availability of your required resources? Do your vendors have the ability to provide those products and services right now? If not, you’ll need to adjust your plans or find alternate workarounds or service providers.
- Have you re-assessed your critical dependencies (both internal and external) to ensure they are aligned to your new ways of working? This may require a refresh of your business impact analysis or could be validated through a walkthrough of response/recovery plans, but you should assume something has changed at this point.
You also need to ensure you are proactively communicating with your staff and key stakeholders. Ensure you share what you are doing to prepare the business, how you plan to support them, but also what expectations you have of them as well. Understand many people are feeling stressed and the thought of dealing with another disaster will not be easy. Don’t just share messages, make sure you are engaging in two-way communications to understand their current situations, their perspective, and truly think about how you can support them.
Finally, work with your risk manager to assess your current insurance policies. Can you leverage them to recoup costs associated with the impacts (and your response) to COVID thus far? Do they sufficiently address your updated risk profile (to include the risk of hurricane impacts)? While reviewing your insurance, also consider whether any of the available government loans or grants can potentially help you prepare for the upcoming peak of hurricane season. It’s important to remember there are external resources which you may be able to leverage at little or no cost to your organization.
Preparing for a hurricane during an ongoing pandemic is no easy feat. There is much to consider and do but taking these small steps can help to prepare your organization for the impacts and bolster overall resilience in the face of a dynamic operating environment.