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Research and Briefings

Planning for natural disasters should mesh with pandemic response


During the global pandemic, many organisations may find it difficult to focus on risks beyond COVID-19. While the pandemic has slowed the global economy, the seasons roll on. Winter storms, flood, earthquakes, and volcanoes remain a continuing threat to large areas of the New Zealand landscape. That means it is even more important for organisations to be prepared for when the next disaster strikes.

Planning for multiple events

During the pandemic, the standard advice for preparing for natural disasters still holds, though organisations also need to look at their strategies through a COVID-19 lens:

  • How do the pandemic measures now in place affect your pre-season planning, emergency response and contingency plans?
  • What amendments do you need to make to existing natural disaster response plans?
  • Do you need to start preparing and planning earlier?

The most strategic organisations plan for the possibility of multiple crisis events occurring close together. In the midst of COVID-19, many resources will be focused on managing the pandemic. Employees may be challenged by remote working, potential illnesses — within their team and family — and personal hardships. It’s important to revisit existing plans and review roles and responsibilities, including for emergency response, crisis management, communications, and business continuity.

More challenging environment

Risk professionals should think strategically about how various independent risks could play out during the pandemic. Pre-COVID-19 plans might not be sufficient for the current reality. All plans should be analysed and adjusted for today’s challenging operating environment. For example, consider whether you need to reconsider staffing reductions and idled or reduced operations in one location in order to support disaster response elsewhere. 

Also consider:

  • People needs: The COVID-19 pandemic is primarily a human crisis. Millions of people around the country and globally are on lockdown or under stay at home orders. An added natural disaster will bring more displacement to those it affects. Consider, for example, that a power outage can be significantly more disruptive during a pandemic as stretched / socially distanced resources could mean longer waits for utilities to restore power. Similarly, there could be delays in addressing property damage. Preparing for a natural disaster may require additional patience and efforts, especially as individuals try to source materials while many stores are closed and supplies depleted. Put plans in place now to help employees prepare for a natural disaster, whether still working on site or remotely, including strategies that will get them to safety in case of local evacuation orders.
  • Communication capacity: The pandemic response is already slowing internet capacity and speeds, and straining audio and video conferencing technologies. Add another disaster and it may become more difficult for your employees to access and share login and dial-in information in the event of power outages or other infrastructure losses. Make sure you have updated employee contact details, including emergency numbers. If you have not tested your communications strategies during the pandemic, do so before another crisis strikes.
  • At-risk locations: Amid the pandemic, business as usual has been redefined. Organisations may have restricted or closed operations in some locations, and they may be considering doing the same for other operations. As organisations explore new strategies, they should take steps to protect properties that are at risk of natural disasters, along with the equipment at those locations. Keep in mind that in the event of a natural disaster, there may not be enough time and resources to take protective actions and respond effectively.
  • Employee support: The pandemic response has brought employee assistance programs to the forefront for many organisations. During a hurricane or other disaster, remote workers may suddenly face physical damage to their homes, significant disruptions to their personal lives, and limited recovery options. Assess employee assistance program resources that are dedicated to pandemic response against what is typically dedicated to natural disaster response. Be prepared to shift time, energy, and funding to support employees impacted by another crisis.
  • Supply chains: While your current natural peril response plan may have identified an alternate supplier, it’s important to check if that resource will be available given pandemic disruptions. Reach out to your current and alternate suppliers to discuss any issues in advance, including production and distribution capacity, cutbacks in transportation services, and stresses on digital networks.
  • Claims complexity: In the event of property damage or business interruption, you need to be ready to move quickly and efficiently in notifying insurers and making a claim, which can help you get the financial resources needed to start the recovery process. It’s essential for organisations to be conversant with their policy details, especially given the compounding business interruption effects that will need to be accounted for. If you have implemented widespread remote working, ensure ahead of time that you have access to needed documentation, including that related to any recent property improvements. Visual documentation — including imagery from satellites, drones, and helicopters — can be helpful during the claims process; if you believe this will be needed, you should make arrangements ahead of time.

Now is the time to assess your plans and how your strategic responses to natural disasters will function alongside your ongoing pandemic response. Taking these steps can help better position your organisation to protect its people, limit further damage, and more quickly resume normal — or perhaps “new normal” — operations.

For more information, visit our Pandemic Risk Hub and explore the Pandemic Lifecycle.

The information contained on this page provides only a general overview of subjects covered, is not intended to be taken as advice regarding any individual situation and should not be relied upon as such.

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