Eye-to-Eye with Hurricanes: Lessons Learned for Business Owners From the Eye of the Storm

Jun 17, 2022
James Junkin, CSP, MSP, SMS, ASP, CSHO

When I was a child, there were once-in-a-lifetime disaster-creating hurricanes. Now, they happen every other year.

Last year, the Atlantic hurricane season produced seven hurricanes, four of which were classified as major hurricanes with winds of 111 mph or greater. This phenomenon, due to the culmination of decades of increasing intensity, frequency, and duration of severe storms, is the result of rising ocean sea surface temperatures caused by global warming and other human-caused environmental changes.

My knowledge of hurricanes is not scientific but personal. 

I have lived through the consequences of four large hurricanes — Katrina, Gustav, Isaac, and Ida — and am still managing through the aftermath of the latter. I moved 135 miles away from the coast after Katrina destroyed my home in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, and Hurricanes Gustav and Isaac caused roof and flood damage after we rebuilt. I wasn’t expecting another once-in-a-lifetime storm when Ida’s strong inland winds struck my new home in Hammond, Louisiana, too.

News coverage shows us all the human and property costs of these large storms, but like many things, it feels different when it happens to you. From Ida, I’ve spent $125,000 of my own money and have waited over a year for my insurance company to send $75,000 to cover damages. This delay isn’t shocking when you consider the 600,000 insurance claims resulting from the storm, on top of the claims filed the year before after Hurricane Laura.

Hurricane Katrina: A first ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ storm 

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In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the Southeastern Coast of the United States and was soon after ranked as the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. The cost: 1,800 lives, and $160 billion in property and infrastructure damage.

Like most hurricanes, Katrina built up over several days, creating a circulation that covered the entire Gulf of Mexico. By the time the storm reached Louisiana, it was a Category 4 hurricane with winds exceeding 170 mph.

Hurricane Katrina’s devastation on the city of New Orleans was actually not a direct result of the storm’s strong winds; it was the inability of the city’s levee systems that held back the waters of Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Borgne to withstand the surge. At the same time, the storm was so powerful that it turned the current of the Mississippi River northbound, surging water back into the industrial canal and putting pressure on its levees. By August 30, 80% of the city was under water. 

My neighborhood of St. Bernard Parish started flooding 24 hours before the levee at the canal gave way. My home, like so many others, was completely destroyed. 

Surviving the storm is the first challenge, but recovery is just as devastating an experience. Every structure in New Orleans had extensive water and roof damage. The city lost power. When the water subsided, you were left with mold and rotting food. A nearby oil spill, combined with sewage and bacteria-rich floodwaters, created a public health emergency. It took 43 days to pump the floodwaters out of the city, and the city’s population has yet to fully recover to its pre-Katrina numbers.

My lessons learned for business owners in hurricane territories 

If my history with hurricanes has taught me — and you — anything it is the importance of preparation. This is more complex for business owners than homeowners, requiring not only insurance coverage and evacuation plans, but business continuity and employee safety considerations. Here are three best practices I recommend for residents and businesses residing in coastal regions:

  1. 1. Know when to leave. Hesitation when fast-moving storms are approaching can be the difference between a safe exit and putting yourself in danger. During hurricane season, it’s important to stay apprised of what’s building in your area. Heed the warnings of local officials and check websites like your local National Weather Service and local government emergency management offices. Download the FEMA app to get real-time alerts. Beyond just listening for guidance, be prepared to act when given the order. Know your evacuation plan, and have emergency items packed and ready to load up and go.
  1. 2. Create a hurricane preparedness plan for your business. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has developed standards to help organizations develop thoughtful, well-organized plans for employer and employee actions during workplace emergencies. These requirements are designed to avoid confusion, injury, and property damage. OSHA 1910-38 Emergency Action Plan requires that emergency plans be both written and communicated orally to your entire staff, and include procedures for:
  • Reporting an emergency.
  • Evacuation and exit routes.
  • Employees who remain to operate critical plant operations before they evacuate.
  • Accounting for all employees after evacuation.
  • Employees performing rescue or medical duties.
  • Contacting employees to disseminate information about the emergency plan at the moment, including names and job titles.
  1. 3. Train your employees. You’ve created the plan, great! But unless your employees know and understand your organization’s emergency plan, everyone and your facility remain in danger. You are responsible for informing and training your employees, including contract and temporary workers, on the hazards, protocols, and backup plans for your facility. You should focus on:
  • Ensuring that all workers know what to do in case of an emergency. This means communicating in a way that considers literacy, cultural, and language barriers that exist within your workforce. 
  • Practicing evacuation plans. Practice makes perfect, or at least builds familiarity and automatic reaction before a true emergency takes place. Perform periodic practice runs to keep your existing and new employees familiar on how to safely exit the premises.
  • Updating your plans and procedures based on lessons learned. If you discover a flaw in your plan during a practice run or a nearby incident provides insight, change the plan and then communicate this change to your workforce.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also recommends that you include the location of the nearest hospital or emergency medical center, type of alarm system used to notify employees of an emergency, procedures for accessing and protecting information, and communication plans in your emergency plans. Even with today’s tools and technologies, hurricane season is still wildly unpredictable. The time we are given to respond as people and business owners is very short.

About the Author

James Junkin, CSP, MSP, SMS, ASP, CSHO
Veriforce Master Trainer
Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder, Mariner-Gulf Consulting Services

Find out more information on how to prepare your business and employees for a life-changing storm.