It’s not your grandfather’s weather anymore. Meteorologists are tracking an increase in the frequency and intensity of weather extremes across the USA as temperatures slowly warm. It’s basic physics: a warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor; potential fuel for severe local storms. The trends are incontrovertible, the data convincing: summer rains are falling harder than they did a generation ago. We’re seeing 1 in 500 flood events every year, somewhere across America. My home state of Minnesota has experienced four 1 in 1,000 year flash flood events since 2004.
The implications for resiliency and natural disaster preparedness are significant. In fact, the number of natural disasters, nationwide, has increased 3-4x since 1980. There is no evidence that warming is impacting the number or severity of tornadoes, but we’ve witnessed an apparent eastward shift in some of the most violent tornadoes in recent years.
Tornado Alley and Super-storm Sandy
Traditional Tornado Alley has morphed into “Dixie Alley” and “Hoosier Alley” – a disproportionate number of EF-3 to EF-5 tornadoes touching down east of the Mississippi, where the local population is relatively unprepared. Last June’s “derecho”, which tracked 750 miles from Iowa to Washington D.C., sparking 100 mph winds, leaving millions without power, was the largest, most violent ever recorded in the USA. And the number of Category 3 or stronger hurricanes has doubled since the 1970s. Super-storm Sandy, three times larger than Katrina in 2005, was made worse by a combination of factors: sea levels were at least 8” higher in the New York City area than they were in the 1970s. Warmer ocean waters added to Sandy’s strength, and record melting of Arctic ice created an unusual high pressure bubble over Greenland, which steered Sandy inland – highly unusual for late October. What can we learn from Sandy? Having a detailed plan is a critical investment in safeguarding and protecting a company’s employees, assets and stock price.
Here are my top 7 take-aways:
- Employees Come First. Staff will put the safety of their families first during a major crisis. It’s difficult to focus on work when key personnel are involved in recovery efforts, looking for housing, or trying to keep their families warm and well-fed. The more you can do to alleviate basic concerns centered on housing, communications and basic necessities, the faster your business will recover after a major disaster, like Sandy.
- Disaster Recovery Plans Can’t Be Detailed Enough. Have you communicated your company’s disaster plan beyond key managers? Have you pushed the intelligence and chain-of-command through the entire organization, or is it dependent on a few high-level executives, who may be out of touch when needed most? Are you continually testing and revising your business continuity and disaster recovery plan? Are you factoring in data center recovery – as well as likely employee/family disruptions? Is your plan transparent to all and flexible enough to adapt to unforeseen variables? It’s the unknown or minimized factors, a “cascade of unintended consequences”, that often cause the most business disruption. Are you war-gaming every conceivable factor your team can contemplate?
- A Redundant Power Supply Isn’t Optional. With Sandy an estimated 8.5 million homes and businesses lost power. Companies that had the foresight to install emergency generators anywhere but the basement or lowest level, vulnerable to storm surge, were able to recover the fastest after Sandy struck. Don’t assume power will be out for hours, or even a day or two. It’s essential to draft plans that contemplate outages lasting weeks, transferring key capabilities to branches and affiliates unaffected by a local or regional disaster, man-made or natural. Contemplate a worst-case scenario. Plan for it.
- Back-up In the Cloud. There are no 100% fool-proof panaceas when it comes to data, but backing up applications and key files in The Cloud, on a regular and reliable basis, will increase the odds of rapid recovery, post-disaster. And there is no such thing as too much communication – apps and social media can and should complement more traditional methods, including e-mail.
- Have Back-up Communications Capabilities. Major disasters will disrupt the grid, and your ability to communicate and coordinate with others. During Sandy as many as 1 in 4 cell phone towers lost power. Key managers should consider satellite phones for true redundancy, with UPS Supply or back-up generators resilient enough to keep these phones powered during a major event.
- Understand Impacts on Vendors and Supply Chain. Key suppliers and vendors will be negatively impacted, and if they lack detailed plans – so may your ability to recover quickly and effectively, post-disaster. Having a detailed, resilient and flexible plan is essential. So is coordinating with critical vendors before a disaster strikes to ensure your plans are synergistic.
- Weather-on-Steroids Requires New Tools & Techniques. When the next crisis strikes (and it will) it’s essential that you lead by example, by being highly visible – and empowering your team to do the right thing, quickly and confidently.
We can’t yet do anything about the uptick in extreme weather, but we can insure that we’re better prepared for potential business disruptions, with a longer runway for preparation and contingency plans. Many Fortune 500 companies employee their own on-staff meteorologists for additional guidance and intelligence. Free e-mail alerts are available from NOAA. Other companies subscribe to services like Code Red and Early Alert. My company launched Alerts Broadcaster, a briefing and alerting service, to help business better navigate heightened levels of weather and climate risk, with more advance lead-time for extreme weather – and a GPS-capable, company-specific call to action for every weather threat and natural disaster. There are numerous options – but doing nothing isn’t one of them.