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Winter Journal

Volume 30, Issue 4

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This May, a prime time for tornadoes in the Midwest, we saw an unprecedented amount of storm activity that struck at the heart of municipal infrastructure across the Plains states and into the South. More than 50 lives – and millions of dollars worth of property – were lost in Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma alone.

“By Saturday, May 3, about 300 tornadoes had been reported since the start of May, about 100 more than the most recent comparable rash, in 1999,” according to Dan McCarthy, warning coordination meteorologist at the Storm Prediction Center of the National Weather Service in Norman, Okla.

A weather system in which an existing warm air mass was hit by a jet stream from the southwest created a situation ripe for producing the thunderstorms that give birth to tornadoes, resulting in 74 twisters tearing across Oklahoma, southern Kansas and western Missouri.

“It’s extremely rare to have so many large outbreaks so close together, affecting such a large area, and be so destructive,” said McCarthy.
Seven Missouri towns – Battlefield, Franklin, Jackson, Liberty, Stockton, Jackson and Pierce City – were hit right downtown.

Banks are required to have a business continuity plan by federal regulations. In the past, these plans were developed to cover the main office and the computer systems. In large cities, there is usually another branch nearby. But in rural America, it may be many miles between branches.

On Sunday, May 4, 2003, several tornadoes struck two such towns in Southwestern Missouri. Branch banks in Pierce City and Stockton suffered major damage. Just 17 days after the tornadoes struck, I visited both towns to determine how well the banks’ disaster plans worked.

Pierce City, Mo.

The First State Bank of Purdy is a privately owned bank with five locations. The main office is in Monett, Mo., with other offices in the towns of Purdy, Pierce City, Cassville, and a facility in a Wal-Mart store. I met with Thom Conus, senior vice president and security officer to discuss the tornado that struck their Pierce City branch office.

The tornado struck about 7 p.m. on Sunday, May 4, 2003. Conus and three other executives – Ron Smith, vice president; Rich Scheihing, vice president and branch manager; and Glen Garrett, owner of the bank – went to Pierce City and secured the branch in less than an hour. Pierce City is just a short drive from Monett.

We once got a call from the risk manager of a national fast-food chain. He had been assigned to put together a crisis prevention and response plan … by himself. He was given no budget and virtually no management support. Though well-meaning, he kept going off on tangents – surfing the Web, reading articles and futilely trying to figure out what to do. He didn’t know enough about the business’ overall operations, or the predictable human impacts of crisis, or public relations practice. He only knew his own discipline, risk and insurance management. He was overwhelmed and poised to fail.

Five years later, this company still didn’t have a comprehensive crisis plan in place. It had already experienced one serious incident, involving a shooter, a fatally injured employee and many bystanders. If another tragedy occurs on their premises – which is not at all unlikely, in that industry – tough questions will be asked about the firm’s lack of preparedness. Having assigned someone to come up with a plan shows that management acknowledged it faced risks. But they took false cover in setting up a crisis point person who could only fail at his task. This could end up having serious consequences for the company later on, because of an emerging concept of liability: negligent failure to plan.

When your company experiences a catastrophe, the immediate concerns will be urgent tasks like taking care of injured people, securing sites, accurately gathering and disseminating information, and getting things back to normal. It’s only afterward that the uncomfortable questions will begin to come up.

Employees, the media and the public will inevitably get around to demanding explanations about how thorough a job you did of preparing for any such incidents.

They will want to know whether you took reasonable precautions to prevent an incident such as this from occurring. And they will scrutinize how well prepared you were to respond – in particular, examining whatever protective or palliative measures you took in aid of those people who were directly affected. How you are able to answer their probing questions might have a lasting effect on the future of your company, and even of your own career.

 

Sirens wail. Television and radio stations interrupt programming. People take shelter.

Basement stairs took a beating from May 4-10, 2003, as 413 tornadoes occurred from California to Virginia – more tornadoes than in any other one-week period since 1950, the year reliable records became available.

This was a week like no other. Major cities like Kansas City and Oklahoma City were hit. Small towns like Franklin, Kan., were nearly wiped off the map.

To put the scope of this event in perspective, consider just one day, May 8, 2003:

• Funnel clouds (tornadoes aloft) were photographed over downtown Sacramento.
• A tornado near Denver International Airport was broadcast live on national television.
• Oklahoma City was hit in the same area as the devastating May 3, 1999, tornado (and would be hit again the following evening).
• A large tornado barely visible through haze and rain near Lyndon, Kan., continued northeast to hit the town of Lawrence, damaging homes and apartments, barely missing the University of Kansas campus.

On March 30, 2003, three subsidiaries of a U.S. corporation were the target of a bioterrorism attack. Twenty employees at various locations throughout the country received a letter containing a fine white powder. What if this was your organization? Are you prepared to respond and protect your employees, their families and the communities they live in?

This was the scenario for a mock disaster exercise sponsored by E Team and facilitated by Borden/Lee Consulting during the DRJ Spring World 2003 Conference in Orlando. The goal of this exercise was to simulate a bioterrorism event, introducing and training private and public sector personnel on how to prepare for and respond to such a threat.

As former chief health officer for the District of Columbia during the anthrax crisis in 2001, I experienced first-hand the strengths and weaknesses of the Washington region’s disaster response planning. Believe me, whether you are in a corporation or a local, state or federal agency, disaster pre-planning has immeasurable benefits.

Most companies and public agencies have a crisis plan – the challenge is turning a static, paper-based plan into action (action that is flexible and well thought out, with built-in reflexes and resources).