Overcoming Natural Disasters

September 1, 2008
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Dozens of home appliances, including water heaters, were hauled out to a lot in Iowa after the flooding of Beaver Creek. HVAC contractors need to establish plans to help get their businesses through natural disasters such as flooding. (Photo by Greg Henshall/FEMA.)


Summer may be winding down, but Mother Nature - apparently - is not. Predictions for the Atlantic Coast hurricane season (June 1 through Nov. 30) from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said there could be 12 to 16 named tropical storms before all wind is blown and gone - and this includes two to five major hurricanes. Just recently, Tropical Storm Fay wreaked havoc on residents living in Florida.

It’s just another reason for contractors to be on the alert - and, just as important, prepared - for that next natural disaster, which may be, unexpectedly, blowing, twisting, or shaking its way around the corner of one’s place of business. The summer of 2008 definitely set a torrid pace, with damaging flooding in the middle of the country, including a few surprising earthquakes; an increase in destructive tornados overall; thunderstorms on the rise; and more wildfires burning across California. In Iowa alone, 80 of its 99 counties were declared Federal Disaster Areas due to flooding.

Every report of these natural disasters can create nervousness, but can also result in contractors redoubling efforts to do everything possible to mitigate damage to their business, ensure the safety of their employees, and be able to rapidly respond to the needs of their customers. In the end, trade associations, industry consultants, and many contractors agree upon and preach the need for being prepared. However, not many contractors have a written natural disaster plan on record, nor have practiced for a potential weather-related hazard.

“Having a plan is certainly a good idea,” agreed Roger Fouche, president and owner of Schaal Heating and Cooling.

Even though his place of business in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, was flooded and under water for several days this past June, the experienced contractor had a plan of attack in place that helped enable the firm and its employees get back on their feet in a timely manner.

“Due to planning and preparation, we did not lose a day of production,” said a proud Fouche.

LESSONS LEARNED FROM 1993

Such was not necessarily the case in 1993. That summer, Fouche admits to being caught somewhat off guard when the murky waters of the swollen nearby rivers rolled into town without asking, putting buildings and homes underwater. Even though the business owner was warned about the possibilities and potential havoc, he admits to not being prepared.

“During the flood of ’93, we had about eight hours notice and had very little out of the office,” confessed Fouche. “We had planned on about two feet in ’93 and ended up getting almost seven feet.”

Without hesitation, he added, “This time we were either going to stay dry if the levee held or we were planning on seven feet or so since the water was about the same height in the river.”

About a week before the flood, Fouche said he made a list of what needed to be done and put all in a priority order, “just in case the water came sooner than we were planning.” This emergency planning included prioritizing what needed to be taken out of the contracting business and where these items should be stored. Other questions Fouche addressed:

• What are the bare minimums I need to keep my company going?

• How will I stay in touch with my employees and customers in case the phones or cell phones go down?

• Where will I relocate for temporary office and/or warehouse?

• Who do I need to contact to get things back up and running? (This includes phone, power, and construction companies, along with computer providers and office equipment.)

• Who will be in charge of the company work while the owner focuses on rebuilding and getting back into the building?

• Where are my insurance agent, banker, and/or CPA if needed?

“That was a very informal list, but it made things go so much smoother because everyone had a copy and knew what to do,” he said. Looking back, Fouche added, “I wish I had made the lists before the event happened, but you can bet I will make it once we get back into our building and redo it to cover other scenarios.”

The headquarters for Schaal Heating and Cooling was under water soon after the mid-June flooding at Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo courtesy of Schaal Heating and Cooling.)

BE PROACTIVE

Instead of being reactive, Fouche suggested that contractors take the proactive approach. Most experts agree with that assessment. (For more guidance help, see sidebars below.)

“I was watching the water level projections at the Corp of Engineers at the Saylorville Lake reservoir, just north of Des Moines,” he said.

“Their projections gave us about four days to prepare and do what we had to do. We started moving stuff out of the office and building on June 10. By Friday afternoon [June 13], we had loaded up the final desks, phone system, and computers onto a truck.”

The main problems involved the office areas, as production in the field carried on, he said.

“With our office, we took everything to our second-floor storage area of the building. Once it filled up, then we started moving stuff off site. When the levee broke on June 14, we had all the office furniture and files removed. Nothing was left but the carpet and walls. There were some things in the warehouse, but they were not important enough to haul out.”

Due to preparation and swift action, Fouche said he was able to get back into his building within three days after the flooding occurred, whereas in ’93 it took almost 10 days. “Having a plan is certainly a good idea,” repeated Fouche. “There are hundreds of things that you have to do and go through your mind. Once you experience something like this, you do start to understand what post-traumatic stress is. Looking back to ,93, I think I definitely went through that.”

Volunteers and members of the Iowa National Guard filled sandbags and left them for residents of Des Moines, Iowa, to come and get for their own homes or businesses. The Iowa National Guard did raise the levee three feet higher with sandbags for a seven-mile stretch in about 36 hours. Unfortunately, one area of the levee did not hold, causing Des Moines to be flooded in June. (Photo courtesy of Schaal Heating and Cooling.)

LESSONS LEARNED FROM 2008

Going through this uncertainty made Fouche realize that all contractors need to have emergency and natural disaster plans in place, “not only for you but for your employees and your customers.”

“They need to know what is going on and what to do,” he said, adding, “I will be updating ours for other disasters to include fire, tornado, and probably the worst-case scenario: terrorism. We would like to think some of that won’t happen in Iowa, but we are just as vulnerable as anyone else.”

After seeing Cedar Rapids, Iowa, get 10 feet more of flooding this past June than it did in 1993, Fouche said he would have to rethink what he leaves at his building, if anything.

“If we had 10 more feet, my building would be almost completely under water, except for about two feet. That would have put us in a lot of different scenarios.”

Though the flooding did interrupt business flow, it did not interrupt income flow. And Fouche is most thankful it did not cause a death among family, friends, or employees.

“The flooding in Des Moines has actually helped business,” he said. “With the cool weather that we have been having due to rain on a regular basis, that was actually hurting business. However, the flooding caused a lot of people to have water in their basements that had never had flooding in their basements before, as well as those that have had it before.”

As it all turned out, June ended up being the company’s third best month ever for sales, he said, pointing out the pluses amongst the negatives. “We are fortunate in that we work out of our trucks and were able to keep all the guys going. We moved all inventory onto the trucks that we could the days before the flood. Our installation trucks are basically sheet metal shops on wheels, so our shop machinery is not used as much as it used to be.”

Sidebar: Hurricane Preparedness

The Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) Disaster Relief Committee created the Hurricane Preparedness Last Minute Essentials Guide. The guidelines are divided into 48 hour duties and 24 hour duties for a variety of company departments.

Office Staff Responsibilities and Duties:

48 Hours Prior to a Hurricane Hitting Land
• Contact certain customers with critical services:

- Refrigerated warehouse/manufacturing

- Nursing homes

- Data centers

- Other critical environments

• Fax customers your emergency contact information.

• Contact vendors to let them know your plan.

• Print out client contact information (four copies).

• Allow time for employees to prepare their homes.

• If possible, consider pre-purchasing plywood to give to or deliver to your employees’ homes since employees may find little or no remaining plywood supplies after they have completed securing customers’ sites.

• Set up area contacts for your employees.

• Gather emergency contact information from all employees, and determine whether they will be staying in the area or leaving the area. Copy this information and give to area contacts for your employees.

• Well in advance of the storm, arrange a contact phone number located at least two states away from your location for employees to check in, if the prearranged area contacts or all primary numbers are impossible to reach due to damage to all cellular and land lines.

• Prior to the storm, establish a partnership with a gas station that may offer priority service, especially after storms, to long-time business customers to try to ensure that gas needs are met for your service fleet.

24 Hours Prior to a Hurricane Hitting Land
• Back-up the server.

• Complete two full system back-ups and give one each to different key managers.

• Run two detailed aging reports and give one each to different key managers.

• Tear down the server and move to predetermined safe area.

Have a back-up server located at least two states away, if possible.

• Transfer the main line office phone to the designated emergency cell phone.

• If you have a “base” station radio/Nextel system, disconnect it and move to predetermined safe area.

• Unplug all office equipment.

• Remove the spare key box (of extra keys, especially for vehicles) and move it to a predetermined safe area.

• Submit all cash, checks from A/R invoices, and all USPS mail to comptroller or the pre-designated manager in your company.

• File all loose paperwork and securely store in file cabinets.

• Cover all file cabinets with heavy plastics in case roof is damaged during the event.

• Move CPU units to top of desks and cover desks in heavy plastic.

• Check to make sure all tools and instruments are securely stored and covered with heavy plastic.

• Walk the yard and make sure everything is picked up. If the yard is not complete, bring a field employee to prepare the yard.

• Park vehicles as close together as possible to prevent damage to as many as possible.

• Find out which employees need assistance securing their own homes and dispatch other employees to help board up residences.

• After all pre-storm tasks are completed, shut off main breaker to the building.

Field Staff Responsibilities and Duties:

48 Hours Prior to a Hurricane Hitting Land
• Fill up gas tank in the van.

• Prepare job sites for high winds.

After the Hurricane passes
• Once the winds drop below 45 mph, allow fleet vehicles to run emergency service, if possible in teams, as a safety measure due to downed power lines, etc.

• Keep in constant contact with your supervisor.

Management Responsibilities and Duties:

• Keep constant communication with staff.

• Verify all responsibilities and duties are taken care of.

Check In Procedures for All Employees:

• After the hurricane has passed, all employees must contact their area contacts with their personal status.

• If not possible for employees to contact their area contacts due to damage to all cellular and land lines, employees call prearranged contact phone number (which is located at least two states away from your location and number given in advance to all employees) to provide an update on their personal status.

• After the area contacts have heard from all employees in their area, they will contact the operations manager and/or president with status.

• If during the storm an incident should occur, contact your area contact for assistance.

Communication With Customers Before and After the Hurricane:

• The office staff will contact certain customers to verify their contact information.

• After the hurricane passes, each of the customers will be contacted by the designated pre-determined manager. Priority response can be focused on those most in need, as well as the customers who before the storm specifically request that your technicians be dispatched to their businesses immediately following the storm.

• Should an issue have occurred at a customer’s location, they will be informed a technician will be on the way once the winds are below 40 mph.

Communication With Vendors Before and After a Hurricane:

• The office staff will contact certain vendors and request emergency contact information for parts after the storm.

• The list will be given to the area contacts, operations manager and president.

• Consider advising vendors in advance that you may need to quickly purchase quantities of items such as electrical parts (examples: motors, control boards, etc.) and other parts more likely damaged by flooding.

What Will Happen Should an Employee Have a Problem?

• The employee is responsible to contact their area contact to inform them of the situation.

• The area contact will contact the operations manager and/or president for assistance.

• Utilize any resources available to assist the employee.

• Allow an employee to utilize the office as a shelter for up to one week, if possible.

Sidebar: Sources to Help

What’s better: preparing for a disaster that never comes or blowing off the chances of an emergency and losing your business when one occurs? According to the American Red Cross, as many as 40 percent of small businesses fail to reopen after natural catastrophes such as earthquakes and floods.

Don’t let this happen to your contracting business. By taking action ahead of time, you can ensure that:

1. You minimize damage to your business, employees, customers, and suppliers.

2. Your business recovers from setbacks and reopens without unusual delays.

3. Employees stay safe and will be ready to work as soon as you reopen.

Sources to obtain guidance for natural disasters are plentiful. Surf most any HVACR trade association Website and you will come across links to natural disaster assistance. Google “Prepare for natural disasters” and many sites will pop up, each offering to help the contractor (and public in general) prepare for natural disasters. The list is extensive, but here are some examples:

• The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA; www.fema.gov/plan) offers the source “Are You Ready? An In-depth Guide to Citizen Preparedness” (IS-22). It is a guide that has been revised, updated, and enhanced in August 2004 “to provide the public with the most current and up-to-date disaster preparedness information available,” it states on FEMA’s Website. “It provides a step-by-step approach to disaster preparedness by walking the reader through how to get informed about local emergency plans, how to identify hazards that affect their local area, and how to develop and maintain an emergency communications plan and disaster supplies kit.” Hazards covered include floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, thunderstorms and lightning, winter storms and extreme cold, extreme heat, earthquakes, volcanoes, landslide and debris flows (mudslide), tsunamis, fires, and wildfires.

• The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is providing information (www.epa.gov/hurricanes) for people, businesses, and state and local governments on preparations to make before hurricane force winds or storm flooding may occur. That site can also be formatted to have updates automatically sent to individual e-mail addresses.

• The Disaster Contractors Network (www.dcnonline.org) is available to “facilitate information sharing and resource matching among government, the construction community, home and business owners before, during, and after disasters strike,” according to organizers of the site.

• There are many businesses that, for a fee, help businesses prepare for natural disasters. Some offer classes and/or training. For instance, SkillPath (www.skillpath.com), a provider of business training, has a daylong program that talks about backup systems, record keeping and software, cash reserves, lines of credit, prioritizing business assets, fire detection and suppression systems, and overall emergency planning.

“Thinking that emergency situations ‘can’t happen here’ is a mistake you don’t want to make,” was how one official of SkillPath described the need to make plans to minimize a situation involving a natural disaster that one really can’t prevent, but can prepare for.

Publication date: 09/01/2008

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