What businesses can learn from the Katrina debacle

There’s a lot out there about crisis response for businesses. Much of this applies to what happened on the Gulf Coast. A lot can be inferred. Obviously larger companies can do more of this stuff than tiny companies. But tiny companies are usually in one place, and just are in survival mode after such a crisis. I’m also going to note the governmental failure to follow these principles:

1) Send the company CEO or president to as near the location of the incident as possible, as soon as possible. Immediately announce his/her intent to do so, if they can’t go immediately due to local conditions. Bush should have helicoptered in as soon as the rain stopped. He didn’t have to stay long.

2) Start with your people, money can be dealt with later. Take care of people. Basic needs. The people who were in the dome needed water, food, sanitation and healthcare. They were told to go there, and many arrived before the storm got intense. Yet there was no thought to what it would be like 3 days later. And during those days, no one was queued up to bring in supplies and transportation and law enforcement immediately after the storm cleared.

3) Figure out what you can do for your community. What resources and people power can you put to work to help people? Customer service and billing should immediately distribute statements of policy to customer-facing people that the company will work with effected customers, and no late fees, account closures, etc. will occur for those in effected areas. Accept vouchers from FEMA, Red Cross, etc. even if you’re not sure you’ll get compensated later.

3) IT matters. Recover PC hardware if possible, ignore the rest. Hard drives are enough. People who can work will need their PCs. But make it clear: people are what matter; real estate, insurance, etc. are secondary. Make sure that those you ask to work under these conditions are OK. Most will be relieved to hand over most responsibility and deal with their own issues, but will feel some guilt. So keep them in the loop.

4) Be prepared: multiple redundant data centers, digital infrastructure that is hosted, rather than local, etc. will all go a long way to keeping things moving under these crisis conditions. It is really stupid to host your website on an internal server. Hosting centers are built with security, power redundancy, and emergency plans that your company probably can’t do as well.

5) But mostly, cross training and management teams that are not spread too thin… lean budgets may seem like a great idea to provide the most benefit to shareholders… right up until a chunk of your company is under water, and “the only guy who knows how to…” is missing, or injured, or traumatized. This goes to company culture, too. Companies that collaborate can adapt under extreme circumstances, while those that rely entirely on internal competition to drive performance fall apart. This is due to information and power hoarding.

6) Use a blog. Post often. Internal and external blogs are great. Employees need to know, just as the public does. Have a great writer tag along with the boss, and go to it. Make sure the posts genuine and useful and about the Boss’s observations. He can take notes and the blogger can expand, but it’s better if the boss writes (quickly) and the blogger cleans it up. Under stress, the boss could say the wrong thing or write things that cause confusion. The blogger should have a frank relationship with the boss.

7) Make sure your organization has (at each office) a satellite phone and a laptop that can use the phone as a modem. Cell phones probably won’t work. Consider a wireless network. A local wireless network can be set up quickly. You’ll need inverters, batteries, even a solar panel or two would be good. You’ll be worse than useless if you go into an area and can’t communicate after the batteries go dead. Have battery powered lights, and radios stored for these occasions. Of course, first aid kits are already done, right?

If I come across more, I’ll add them to this article.

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