This week Charlie looks at what points you should consider when planning for a hurricane.
For the last couple of weeks I have been in the Caribbean, helping a power and water company plan for hurricanes, so I thought I would share what I have learnt. I have done a reasonable amount of hurricane planning before, and have interviewed several people who lived through Hurricane Maria in September 2017, so I know the basics. However, as so often happens in this profession, during my visit I learnt lots more! I think a number of the points I am going to discuss are valid for all incidents, so if hurricanes are not one of your threats there should still be something of interest for you, so read on!
My first point is about planning. One of the advantages (if it possible to use that word) of hurricanes, is that unlike most incidents you have some time to prepare, as you will usually get around 3-4 days’ notice. This is not entirely predictable as the hurricane can change course or strength, but unlike an earthquake, at least you have some time to prepare.
Throughout the Caribbean, I have always been impressed by the level of awareness and planning. Most organisations I have been involved with have a plan and a series of activities they carry out in preparation for the hurricane season. As part of our preparations. we ran an exercise across the whole company to ensure that their plans were coordinated and to help them prepare for the season. Our scenario for the exercise consisted of a category three hurricane, which in this organisation’s plans requires them to shut down their water and power production, in order to protect them from the storm surge and so that all staff can be evacuated from the plant. Their individual plans for each division were detailed and well-thought-out, but they had been prepared in silos and there was little coordination between all the different divisions involved in the shutdown. There was also some confusion on when staff would be sent home before the incoming storm. Would some staff be sent home in the ‘Code Red’ time zone, 12 hours before the storm, or would all staff be sent home prior to ‘Code Red’ starting?
At the end of the exercise we all agreed that what was needed was a project plan which synchronised the activities of the different divisions, prior to the hurricane arriving. Now that a project plan is in place, if a hurricane is forecast, the time it is due to arrive can be put into the project plan as the ‘delivery date’ and all the actions can be seen, with each division knowing when they need to carry out their activities. As well as coordination, we considered the shutdown. It is useful to take a company-wide view of when different divisions are sending staff home. This allows appropriate communication with staff before they are sent home and ensures that staff who are needed in support roles are not sent home too early. Within the timeline, it must also be taken into consideration that staff will need sufficient time to prepare their home and their family before the hurricane arrives. One of the lessons I learnt was to develop a countdown project plan of company-wide activities which need to be carried out before a hurricane arrives.
Image 1: An example of the timeline we created during the exercise.
During an incident, keeping staff informed of what is going on and the actions they should take is vitally important. Staff confusion on what to do leads to poor staff morale and engagement with the response. One area I can’t remember seeing in any plans is a list of items to brief staff on before they go home or to a shelter to wait for the hurricane’s arrival. This briefing is very important, especially as during Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico all communication lines were destroyed. The company whose staff I interviewed said that it took them three weeks to account for all staff and find out if they were safe. Some staff lived in remote parts of the island which were completely cut off.
The main areas which the staff briefing should cover before they leave, include the following:
- Any preparation they should carry out before they can go home.
- At what point they can leave the site and go home.
- Informing personnel on how to contact the company if normal communication methodologies are down (email, telephone, internet), and how to get updates from the company. This could be via local radio if all other communication channels are unavailable.
- Any advice for protecting themselves and their family from the hurricane.
- What equipment they should take home.
- When they should turn up to work after the hurricane and where they should report to.
- What type of task they might be doing on return to work.
- Whether they should they bring any protective equipment with them on return to work.
- What they should do if they feel they can’t leave their family for fear of looters, or if they need to deal with their own family’s issues before returning to work. As a minimum, they may be asked to get a message to the company to say they are safe and they are not returning to work immediately.
- What help the company will offer to those that need it e.g. food, water, building materials, ice, loans, use of company tools and equipment.
The other area, which is usually less developed in hurricane plans, is recovery after the hurricane. This is made difficult by not knowing what level of damage the hurricane will cause. This can vary from complete devastation and having no water or power for six months to some minor damage. In the recovery phase, there are a few items which seem to be missing from a lot of recovery plans:
- Where and when staff should meet after the hurricane and should this be on site or off site.
- Do you want all staff to report at the same time or do you want to stagger the staff return to enable operational staff to come first and support staff later, after damage assessment has been carried out? Do you have a task for support staff to carry out if they cannot do their normal role?
- How will the damage assessment be carried out, who will do it, do they have the appropriate qualifications to make an assessment and how will the information be collated centrally?
- Who needs to be communicated with in order to inform the status of your company and the impact of the hurricane?
- How do you manage safety of staff after the event and how do you prevent people trying to be ‘heroes’ in responding and clearing up, but at the same time putting themselves at risk? How do you enforce the safety message and supervise staff to ensure safe working?
- How will you deal with volunteers from either staff or the local community, and do you have tasks that they can do?
- Who will collate information from all staff to check they are safe, whether they have any family or personal requirements and what is the status of their home? The company in Puerto Rico did this very effectively and human resources interviewed every member of staff to ascertain their needs and the status of their home and family.
When I am presenting on this subject, I always say you can never be 100% prepared. The next incident is always the one you didn’t anticipate or prepare for, BUT the more you prepare, the more you think through some of the actions you need to carry out and learn from other’s good practice, the better you will be prepared.