RESEARCH AND BRIEFINGS

Planning for Natural Disasters Should Mesh with Pandemic Response

 


During the global pandemic, many organizations may find it difficult to focus on any risks beyond COVID-19. But while the pandemic has slowed the global economy, the seasons roll on. Spring flooding is underway in some parts of the US, and hurricane and wildfire seasons are on the near horizon. In fact, federal scientists predict that 23 states will see moderate to major flooding by the end of May, while Colorado State University’s annual hurricane forecast projects an above-average number of storms in 2020. That means it’s even more important for organizations to be prepared for when the next disaster strikes.

Planning for Multiple Events

During the pandemic, standard advice for preparing for natural disasters generally still holds, though organizations also need to look at their strategies through a COVID-19 lens. How do the pandemic measures now in place affect your contingency plans? What amendments do you need to make to existing natural disaster response plans?

The most strategic organizations 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.

If a natural disaster strikes an area with a high number of active COVID-19 cases, local, state, and federal emergency and other response services may be stretched thin. For example, FEMA is already operating across dozens of states and managing staffing shortages as its own personnel are affected by COVID-19. Similarly, first responders could be ill, self-isolated, or caring for family members.

More Challenging Environment

Risk professionals should think strategically about how various non-correlated risks could play out during the pandemic. Even if you have robust plans that were effective in previous years, they might not be sufficient for the current reality. All plans should be analyzed 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 (as of this writing). 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 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 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. Consider establishing toll-free numbers and emergency mass notification systems. You may even consider providing local leadership with satellite phones. 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. Organizations may have restricted or shuttered operations in some locations, and they may be considering doing the same for others. As they explore new strategies, organizations 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 organizations. 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 hurricane response plan may have identified an alternate supplier, it’s important to check if that resource will be available this year 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 organizations 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’s 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 organization to protect its people, limit further damage, and more quickly resume normal — or perhaps “new normal” — operations.

For more information, contact us.

Renata Elias
Senior consultant, Marsh Risk Consulting Strategic Risk Practice

Robert Smith
Managing director, Client Advisory Services Marsh Risk Consulting