Planning for Disaster – How a Major Corporation Survived the Blow of Hurricane Irma By Sharon P. Dawson

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Case Study by Sharon P. Dawson.

“Hurricane season begins June 1st and so it’s a good time to review our preparedness, dust off the old plans and review past lessons learned – TO BE SURE THEY WEREN’T JUST LESSONS AND ACTUALLY LEARNED! The following case study by CMCG is far more than just an interesting “story,” it’s an important opportunity for every business to understand the value of having a solid crisis and business continuity plan in place, especially as Hurricane Irma bore down on it. While exact financial data is hard to accurately measure, clearly in this case the emergency actions taken resulted in this corporation preserving millions, if not tens of millions of dollars in sales revenue by maintaining operations through the worst of the hurricane. We have chosen for privacy and confidentiality reasons to keep the name of the corporation anonymous, but feel free to contact us offline for a broader discussion of this case and the preparedness program lessons.”–Bob Bradshaw, Co-Founder of Contingency Management Consulting Group, LLC.

Responding to the threat of a major hurricane is never a welcome challenge, but for a large employer in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, the timing of Hurricane Irma could not have been worse. At the time of the storm, this company was in a transitional period. They had recently accepted an offer from its largest competitor, but the acquisition would not be finalized. To complicate matters further, Hurricane Irma was a very unusual and unpredictable storm. As such, forecasts of the storm’s track were often contradictory and constantly changing.

Nevertheless, the company persevered. The Crisis Management Team (CMT) and Business Continuity personnel made the critical decision to move a select group of personnel and equipment by truck to an alternate location outside the cone of probability. 

Relocation and Evacuation Plans

At this time, Governor Rick Scott had already declared a state-wide emergency, urging Florida residents and visitors to make the necessary arrangements and evacuate to safety. An estimated 6.3 million people were ordered to evacuate, according to the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

On Wednesday, September 6, 2017, five days before the storm was expected to begin pounding the southern coasts of Florida, the CMT decided that approximately 150 employees (and their families) would be flown to the join the others who had already left by vehicle to the designated alternate location. Another 150 employees would be urged to evacuate with their families to the World Center Marriott in Orlando. A core group of individuals would remain behind at headquarters, sheltered in place with their families and pets in a designated safe area of the office campus. These individuals would work to shut down the facility prior to the storm’s arrival and remain on-scene to provide rapid damage assessment to quickly respond to and mitigate impacts once the storm had passed through. Through chaos and confusion among flight cancellations and closing airports, a charter flight was finally arranged for 9:30 p.m. on Friday evening for those being flown to the alternate location.

Upon arrival at the alternate location, a seamless transition of business operations was successfully executed. The organization effectively communicated with its customers and stakeholders to ensure they were aware the company was continuing to operate albeit from a different location. 

Sheltering Through the Worst of the Storm

The CMT then made the decision that all employees who were not part of the group identified to stay behind, or who were not on the Friday evening flight to the alternate location, would be strongly urged to evacuate to Orlando, where they and their family (and pets) would be housed at the World Center Marriott at the company’s expense. All told, approximately 4,000 people and 900 animals were accommodated.

On Sunday, September 10, Hurricane Irma smashed into the Florida Keys, and the storm began making its way up the state, coming ashore again on Marco Island and wreaking havoc on Florida’s West Coast on Sunday afternoon. In Tampa, the damages consisted of downed trees and debris and loss of power, but Tampa residents did not experience the extensive damages felt elsewhere throughout the state. By Tuesday, September 11, the storm in Florida had weakened to a Tropical Storm, but flash flooding and storm surge continued to be a problem. Power was also out in large swaths of the state. By Wednesday, most employees and their families began returning to their homes in Tampa. 

Evaluating the Full Impact of Irma

The vast majority of the organization’s employees were accounted for within a few days, but it took approximately two weeks to achieve 100% personnel accountability. Although the facility did not suffer a loss of power, the impacts to power statewide and prolonged fuel concerns significantly impacted employees’ ability to get to work during the first week after the storm passed through.

All told, the company spent roughly $2 million dollars executing the emergency plan and providing employees with compensation during their time responding to the storm. The majority of the costs were spent on chartering the plane(s) and providing hotel accommodations and meals. The impacts of having to execute its Business Continuity plan was estimated at approximately $13 million, as average daily sales went down by roughly 30%. However, the organization firmly stands by the decisions it made and recognizes that without appropriate plans in place and the ability to successfully execute them, the impacts would likely have been far greater. 

Invaluable Lessons Learned

Throughout this experience, the company gained invaluable insight into areas of their emergency management that worked, and areas that could be improved upon. Some of these opportunities might also be contemplated by others facing the same threat. A few of the most important lessons are as follows:

  • Emergency plans must remain current and the training on them must be a top priority.
  • All staff should be familiar with emergency plans, policies and procedures.
  • Compensation and accommodations should be pre-determined to the extent that they can be.
  • Employees should be provided with the flexibility required to board their homes, pack and relocate.
  • A meteorologist served as a member of the CMT, which proved to be very beneficial in tracking the storm.
  • Communication with partners and vendors regarding Business Continuity operations in an alternate location during a disaster situation should occur prior to a disaster.
  • Top decision makers within an organization must remain engaged with the Business Continuity plan.
  • The cost of executing the Business Continuity Plan must be fully understood by top-level executives.
  • Evacuation locations must be pet-friendly, or many employees will choose to remain behind at their own risk.
  • Employees should be encouraged to develop a personal emergency plan for their families to include accommodating for the needs of their pets.
  • Ongoing emergency planning, training and exercises to quickly respond to any potential threat or hazard in the future must remain a top priority!

This case study was developed in partnership with a CMCG client for whom we have provided planning and exercise support.  Please visit us or contact us at (717) 458-8134 if you would like more information about our planning, training and exercise services.


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