As the first Hurricanes of the 2009 season passed by with minimal damage, I am reminded of the past devastation of storms such as Katrina, Andrew, Wilma, Ivan and Rita. These Hurricanes caused millions of dollars in damage and accounted for numerous fatalities.
Since the turn of the century, hurricane-related deaths have dropped considerably while property damage has increased in the extreme. The reason is obvious: hurricane forecasting has improved over time so that watches and warnings are getting to us with plenty of days—and sometimes weeks—to evacuate and prepare. We are getting out of harm’s way when the hurricanes strike, but our property continues to face the challenges of these storms.
Our industry has made huge strides in recent years with regards to mitigating damage and loss of merchandise through more complex and efficient contingency plans, stronger partnerships with local, state and federal agencies and information sharing with each other and national trade associations.
The logistics of making sure stores are able to open up in the aftermath of a major natural disaster like this is astounding. Retailers need employees to be safe, stores to be stocked, and distribution and communication networks in place to ensure everything goes smoothly. The retailers’ goal is generally to keep stores open as late as possible before the storm and then open as quickly as possible after the storm. Generally, it’s our Loss Prevention team’s responsibility to make sure this is done safely and without putting anyone in harm’s way.
One of the most challenging aspects of dealing with hurricanes tends to be resource staging. You must have the right amount of merchandise and emergency/disaster recovery supplies available in close proximity to the affected areas and ready to deploy. The difficulty comes in deciding where to stage it, especially for retailers with limited supply networks and distribution center locations.
Another challenge we face this season is that we are operating in an extremely challenging economic environment. Either there are fewer people on our teams or the team has more responsibilities–or, most likely, both are true. The typical response to a disaster is to “dust off” the old plan and throw resources at it, but in this day and age we MUST do more with less or even nothing. Becoming more efficient and better executioners is truly more essential than ever. September is National Preparedness Month, and there is no better time than now to make or update a plan.
With that being said, retailers must remember to plan for all the major hazards associated with hurricanes: storm surges, high winds, tornadoes and flooding. Here are some high-level tips to think about when preparing for hurricane season and formulating a plan:
• Continue to engage and build strong relationships with your local, state and federal agencies.
• Have the right procedures in place to allow for the ability to get to the affected stores so that you can assess and document damage, while being able to evaluate the property’s ability to safely open for business.
• Staging plans should be in place. Depending on what you sell, there are always key items to have in your stores before a storm hits. The same is true for post-incident merchandising. Your window of opportunity to sell is fairly limited so getting this right is crucial.
• Contact lists should be updated and available for everyone from emergency personnel to store associates, suppliers, and corporate headquarters so it’s easy to reach the people you need.
• Test your ability to operate an emergency phone line that employees can dial into to get information and/or leave a message regarding their own location and safety.
• Maintain an awareness and communication plan with all key internal departments. To successfully survive in a hurricane, it takes operations, merchandising, HR and others…not just LP.
Obviously, these suggestions are only the beginning. There are many resources available to us for great emergency planning ideas and details, but the best advice seems to be in proper preparation, regular assessments and continued communication. With all of that said, I am hoping the forecasters are right and we have a below normal number of potential hurricanes this season.