Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, wildfires, floods, pandemics. There was a time when the possibility of experiencing such disasters might have seemed remote. Hurricane Katrina woke us up to our vulnerability.
A disaster, as defined in the Encarta World English Dictionary, is “an event that causes serious loss, destruction, hardship, unhappiness or death.” This is more than a mere emergency, “an unexpected and sudden event that must be dealt with urgently.” Planning ahead for a disaster involves anticipating emergencies that disasters bring in their wake, such as power outages. Yet it’s a far more comprehensive process than purchasing a back-up generator.
The sheer scale of the devastation wrought by Katrina shows that we must plan not only for the temporary incapacity of the business but also of the infrastructure it depends on. Failure to prepare for a disaster could shut down your co-op for an extended period, threatening its existence. And remember, many disasters arrive with less warning than a hurricane.
As stewards of the owners’ assets, the board of directors should ensure through setting policy and monitoring compliance that management is taking effective steps for disaster preparedness. The rest of this article is directed toward co-op managers to aid them in this effort.
A disaster preparedness plan should establish the following priorities:
- Protect human life.
- Minimize risk of injury.
- Protect the physical assets of the co-op, including data (such as financial records, databases, personnel files, insurance documents, copies of signed contracts, proof of ownership, proof of loss documents)
- Resume normal operations as soon as possible.
From the Department of Homeland Security’s ready.gov website you can download the Sample Business Continuity and Disaster Preparedness Plan, which will walk you through how to create you own plan. In addition, you can download forms for an evacuation plan and a shelter-in-place plan. Another resource is the Institute for Business and Home Safety’s “Open for Business: A Disaster Planning Toolkit for the Small to Mid-Sized Business Owner.”
Experts on disaster preparedness advise setting up a cross-functional response team to develop the plan, coordinate practice exercises, and put the plan into action if the need arises. At Ever’man Natural Foods Co-op in Pensacola, Florida, all eight members of the management team are part of the disaster team. General Manager John Russo assigns team members multiple back-up responsibilities, pointing out, “They could be your most reliable employees, but if they live in a mandatory evacuation zone, they can’t get to your store.” For co-ops with multiple stores, each site should have its own response team. Although planning should be coordinated among sites, in a disaster they may be cut off from each other.
Developing a support network
Before a disaster strikes, build and maintain relationships with local law enforcement, county emergency management agencies, neighboring businesses, vendors, even roofers and refrigerator repair companies.
Local government: At a presentation to the Consumer Cooperative Management Association, William Alford of International Lighthouse Group advised co-ops to contact the emergency preparedness division of their state or county, and ask to become part of the regional plan. As a food provider to the community, your co-op could be considered a critical responder. This could mean that limited power supplies would be allotted to your store, vendor trucks would be allowed to get through to you, and your product might not be commandeered. Consider that after Katrina, trucks bound for supermarkets with food and water were turned away.
Ever’man Co-op has found it valuable to establish a relationship with the health department. When hurricanes cause extensive flooding, health officials “assume all our water isn’t potable and has to be tested,” explains Russo. To get the health department to prioritize reopening the co-op, “you have to let them know you’re a community service yourself.”
Forging a relationship with local law enforcement might help your employees get to the store despite curfews. In Pensacola after Hurricane Ivan, there was a curfew in effect for several weeks. Before the storm, the human resources department of the Pensacola News Journal obtained passes from the sheriff so that employees with a business need could travel. According to HR manager Linda Wheeler, quoted in HR Magazine, “We may not have been able to get this type of assistance quickly following the storm because law enforcement is otherwise occupied. We secured the commitment and permission and signature each year as part of our hurricane preparedness protocols.”
Neighboring businesses: If you share a building or city block or strip mall with other businesses, it makes sense to coordinate disaster preparedness planning with them. They may have expertise or crucial supplies to share. Joint efforts to protect a building can only help your own business. If an emergency evacuation is ever called for, you could avoid gridlock and loss of precious time. Even better, practice evacuation drills together.
Vendors: Make sure your vendors have back-up plans themselves. If hurricanes are heading your way, Russo advises contacting distributors and setting up alternate scenarios depending on the extent of the damage. “From UNFI we get staples in advance