Chamber Executive Article Archive

After the Headlines: Tips for Before and After Disaster Strikes

Katherine House

(Sidebar to After The Headlines, cover story for the Fall 2011 issue)

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Before Disaster Strikes: 14 Tips

Experts can help you prepare emergency plans, including how much bottled water to store for each employee. But chamber executives with disaster experience say they couldn't anticipate or prepare for the scope of damage they faced. Planning based on previous disasters is helpful, but each disaster is different, just as every community and every chamber are different. Here are some considerations to help you prepare.

  1. Don't assume your chamber or town will not be affected. "Unfortunately, in America, there is not one community that is not disaster-prone," says James Lee Witt, CEO of Witt Associates, a public safety and crisis management consulting firm in Washington, D.C., and director of FEMA during President Bill Clinton's administration. The areas most affected by Hurricanes Irene and Floyd were not coastal communities, he says, but "communities hundreds of miles away from what are typical hurricane-prone areas."
  2. Learn about mitigation techniques. "I would suggest that businesses and towns learn what they can about mitigation (even more so than preparedness) because if you reduce your risks by hardening your structures, or evaluating if you are in harm's way, you will likely have better outcomes," says Witt.
  3. Review and understand your chamber's insurance plans. Officials with the Galveston Chamber of Commerce believed they were prepared for a hurricane because the chamber had windstorm coverage, says Gina Spagnola, IOM, president. After Hurricane Ike, flooding from the storm surge caused significant damage. Without flood insurance, the damage was not covered. Witt recommends that small businesses (and chambers) hold a policy for the replacement cost of their businesses as well as business interruption insurance.
  4. Build a reserve fund. "Understand your monthly obligations and plan to survive without a dime coming in for four to five months," says Spagnola. It still pains her that a cash crunch following Ike meant she had to lay off employees when they were needed to help with recovery and when they needed jobs. Thankfully, she was able to rehire them.
  5. Establish a community-wide resource for citizens. In Cedar Rapids, chamber officials worked with city and county officials and a technology expert from a large company to create an official information portal,, which gave residents and business owners one place to go for accurate, up-to-date information.
  6. Maintain strong relationships with local SCORE chapters. (SCORE, a nonprofit association dedicated to helping small businesses, is a resource partner with the U.S. Small Business Administration and has been mentoring entrepreneurs for 40 years.) Following the flooding in Cedar Rapids, the local SCORE chapter did many things, including mentoring and reviewing applications for bridge loans. Joplin does not have a SCORE chapter, but the Joplin chamber got volunteer help from the Springfield, Mo., and Tulsa, Okla., chapters.
  7. Collect cell phone numbers, and hone your texting skills. Getting in touch with people after an emergency can be frustrating. Cell phones may be your only electronic means of communication. Does your chamber have cell phone numbers for members, employees, federal, state and local government officials? It's also helpful if staff members are experienced texters. In a disaster, text messages get through when cell calls don't. Says Kirstie Smith of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce, "We all have the thumbs of a 13-year-old now. Anyone who was a one-finger texter before this is now lightning fast."
  8. Maintain memberships in ACCE and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, recommends Tish Williams. When Hurricane Katrina struck, the Hancock County Chamber of Commerce was not a member of either organization because, says Williams, executive director of that chamber and the Hancock Community Development Foundation, "I did not understand or know the value." She remains grateful for how ACCE and its members reached out to help. "ACCE was there for me, with membership checks, grants and supplies," she says.
  9. Have a 501(c)(3) in place, if possible. A foundation can be a conduit for donations and grant money. The Hancock County Chamber of Commerce was created in 1925, and didn't need a foundation until Hurricane Katrina. Tish Williams was lucky. She modeled her chamber's foundation after one in San Francisco, thanks to help from a volunteer affiliated with that city's chamber. She then worked with her congressional delegation to fast track its approval.
  10. Learn about potential sources of funding, says J. Mac Holladay, CCE, PCED, CEO of Market Street Services in Atlanta. This includes studying the ins and outs of federal and state disaster programs. Chamber executives may also want to talk to local banks about their possible post-disaster role in small business lending and loan payment rescheduling.
  11. Maintain a social media presence. "If you don't have a social media presence today, it will be hard for you to be a credible presence during a disaster," says Smith, who recently gave an SBA webinar on using social media for disaster communications. John L. MacMartin, CCE, president of the Minot Area Chamber of Commerce, says flooding in his city "made it very obvious that just e-mails and a web site presence were not enough." Begin now to establish a following on Twitter and Facebook so that these will be familiar communication outlets for anyone connected to your chamber.
  12. Confirm reliability of computer back-ups. After Hurricane Ike, Spagnola discovered the Galveston chamber's back-up tapes were blank--despite the fact that the computer system regularly registered a "Backup system complete" message. Luckily, the chamber had switched to a web-based membership database two weeks earlier. After Joplin's tornado, the computer network at the Joplin chamber was down, preventing Smith from accessing her prized list of media contacts. A cloud computing application would have allowed access to that list.
  13. Build relationships with major players in your community. "If you don't have a seat at the table in the community today on major issues, in the time of disaster, you probably won't have it," warns James Chavez, president/CEO of the Clarksville-Montgomery County (TN) Economic Development Council. MacMartin says Minot's emergency services handle disaster preparedness, but don't include anyone from the business community. "That's one thing we must handle differently," he says.
  14. Expand your disaster planning beyond your own office. Some executives noted their chambers had great disaster plans for their own offices, but never considered the impact of widespread community devastation. Spagnola urges chamber executives to talk with their staff about what they would do if "life as you know it ceases to exist." Lower Manhattan after 9/11 and New Orleans in 2005 redefined "disaster" for many communities and chambers. How would you operate and assist members if your office was destroyed, or roads are closed, power is out, phones aren't working, water and sewer are interrupted, and businesses are shuttered, halting the flow of paychecks (and dues)?

After Disaster Strikes: 10 Tips

  1. Be realistic about how long recovery will take. "As a country, we have a serious problem with false expectations around recovery," says Shannon Meyer, IOM, president and CEO of the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Neenah, Wis. Meyer previously worked at the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Area Chamber of Commerce following widespread flooding in 2008. Holladay says recovery from a major disaster can take 10 years or more. The disaster recovery process is like a marathon, not a sprint.
  2. Be there for your neighbors. After a tornado, volunteers from nearby chambers helped the Joplin chamber answer the unexpected spike in calls from those needing assistance, as well as those donating goods and services.
  3. "Learn to accept help, learn to ask for it and learn to pass on help to someone who needs it more than you," says Ginger LaMar, IOM, Business Services Director for the Joplin chamber, who lost her house and vehicles in the May tornado. "Take some time for yourself," advises MacMartin. Following flooding in Minot this summer, he felt guilty taking time away from work to tend to personal matters. His home took on several feet of water, and he and his wife have been living in their camper parked on a friend's property. In October, they will begin house-sitting for a friend and plan to spend much of the winter rebuilding their residence.
  4. Understand that you can't solve every problem. "Open yourself up to collaborations and partnerships," says Donny Jones, COO of the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama, who adds, "The more the chamber can involve the business community in crisis management the faster [your community] can recover when disaster strikes." The Tuscaloosa, Ala.-based chamber's partnership with AT&T allowed it to get phone lines installed quickly in the city's Volunteer Reception Center, he says.
  5. Weigh the pros and cons of proposed response programs. Not every chamber wants to get in the business of providing grants or loans. The Board of Directors of the Galveston Chamber of Commerce considered a loan program, but did not initiate one. Board members decided the chamber would be better off linking businesses up with other resources of funding. With 850 members, it would have been a "no-win" situation, says Spagnola.
  6. Don't overlook the importance of mental health services. The Business Recovery Expo in Joplin featured counselors from a local mental health clinic. People could talk to counselors in a booth, as well as in a private area to get more information about services, says LaMar. At the flood recovery conference in Bismarck, one of the breakout sessions was titled "Health Impacts: Physical and Mental." The session covered distress symptoms, support systems and coping methods for disaster victims.
  7. As soon as you know it, share it. Thanks to a conference call with Meyer immediately after the 2010 flood, Chavez was able to tell business owners in Clarksville not to throw out wet, soggy paperwork. He learned people in Cedar Rapids were too quick to throw away things that might have been salvaged, making it harder to provide documentation for assistance programs. Chavez says lessons learned from his peers in Cedar Rapids "were invaluable"
  8. Be nimble as the chamber's role changes. Meyer joined the Cedar Rapids chamber six months after flooding in the community and stayed for approximately two years. During her stay, she spent 90 percent of her time working on flood recovery, and is thankful for her "amazing team." Keep in mind that your changing role can reap rewards. Before Katrina, the Hancock Chamber was known primarily for ribbon cuttings. "Now we are an economic force to be reckoned with," says Williams.
  9. Give credit where credit is due. Chavez says many people behind the scenes--emergency management and roads department personnel to name a few-- worked tirelessly after the city's flood, yet are rarely given credit. "Whenever we get the opportunity to tell our story, we try to get those people named," he says.
  10. Don't be afraid to fight for businesses. "We took a lot of heat," says Meyer. "We had to be very aggressive with city, state and federal governments."
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