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Volume 32, Issue 1

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7 Lessons Learned from Hurricanes Harvey & Irma

Written by: Kevin Hall, General Manager of Business Resilience, Resolver

Organizations without an adequate emergency management plan learned a hard lesson in late August and September of 2017. Hurricane season of 2017 showed its might, and while most businesses will never experience a single hurricane in their lifetime, some dealt with four hurricanes in almost as many weeks. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria and Nate were some of the strongest storms in recent history, causing significant damage and widespread devastation across the United States and Central America.

As Resolver provided counsel and solutions to our customers during these record setting storms, I wanted to share some insight that may help you prepare for future disasters.

1. The Domino Effect

In the early days of my emergency management career, an experienced and well-respected colleague of mine would say that crises tend to “cluster”. While back-to-back devastations are rare, a single disaster can have a domino effect. During a disaster, emergency response teams are spread thin and when resources are solely focused on the big event, other smaller events will occur and it’s almost always something you didn’t think of during planning. It could be an internal event, like a system outage, or something external, like a government decision, a Facebook post, a crisis at a related company. The key is to prepare for a cluster of crises to occur, because they will.

2. Executive Management

At almost any conference these days, there are sessions on how to get executive buy in for business continuity and emergency planning. While no one is questioning the importance of executive buy in, it can be even more important to know how to manage executives during a crisis. Why? Well, executives are used to taking the lead and making decisions. But let’s be honest, execs are rarely involved in BC/DR planning. You build the plans. You assign resources. You exercise. And then the event occurs and the company’s reputation, customers, revenue are on the line… and guess who steps in? Executives do what they do best, which is to manage and make decisions, but their involvement often causes confusion and disruption during a crisis response. Be sure your plans clearly define who is making decisions during a crisis. If execs are not participating in emergency planning, they should not be managing the emergency response and it’s your job to define responsibilities and manage executives in these critical times.

3. Brainstorm

Brainstorming is an important exercise that will help you prepare for worst-case scenarios. Think of all the potential emergencies and how you would respond. In many cases, I find brainstorming to be more effective than planning. There is no way to plan for everything, but brainstorming trains your mind to be creative. A great activity to do with your team is a zombie apocalypse exercise - these can be very engaging and gives your team a break from the norm.

4. Data, Data, Data

It amazes me that even in today’s world, many organizations cannot access critical data in the event of an emergency. Data is the lifeline of any organization, yet crisis plans are so often void of accurate information. Can you instantly access an up-to-date list of staff at a specific location? What about a list of applications and servers that are in a specific data center? As you brainstorm, think about the data that you will need at your fingertips. I would suggest engaging a business analyst or someone within your organization who is familiar with data mining to help identify your data needs. Most importantly, be sure that data is continuously updated and accessible during a crisis.

5. Test, test, and test again.

While I’m sure you already know how important it is to test your plans, I cannot stress it enough. While table top exercises are great, remember to test the basics. #1 on that list is ensuring that employee contact information is up-to-date and valid… I can’t tell you how many HR data cleansing projects I’ve seen that were initiated by the continuity or emergency management teams. Test the details and test them regularly.

6. Communicate

We all know that communication is critical during a crisis, but in this case, I am specifically talking about communication before a crisis. Often, the only time employees or stakeholders ever hear from the crisis or continuity teams is during a disaster. This should not be the case, and you need to develop regular communication with employees as part of your program. They should know what to expect and have a good understanding of the recovery plan well before the event. One of our clients even hired a marketing agency to communicate their crisis program to employees. While not everyone can afford to do this, the concept of communication is simple: Get out of your box and spread the word!

7. Out of sight, out of mind?

Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, and while it’s not a U.S. state, residents of Puerto Rico are natural born American citizens just like those in the U.S. – apart from voting rights in Congress or the Electoral College. Despite this, recovery efforts in Puerto Rico were minimal compared to the response to Harvey and Irma. Was Puerto Rico simply too “out of sight, out of mind”? Or perhaps emergency response teams were too tired by the time the third hurricane hit? For businesses with multinational locations, you must include these regions in your BC/DR plans. And don’t forget to test them. Did you know that Puerto Rico SMS text traffic is different than in the U.S. and Canada? The same short codes that work in the U.S. and Canada don’t work within Puerto Rico.  There are even variances between mobile network carriers in Puerto Rico. The devil is in the details, so be sure to test your plans in all the regions your business operates.

In the end, Resolver helps organizations around the world protect what matters, and we all know that what matters most is our people. A company’s most valuable asset is its employees, and their safety is always priority #1. That’s why business continuity and emergency planning is so important. Disasters are rare, but recognize that events like this will happen. We live in a crazy time. Record setting storms, terrorism, mass shootings… Don’t play the numbers game. Be a realist and be prepared. It is your responsibility, after all.

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