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Risk in Context

Communication Among Hardest Challenges Following Disaster, Survey Finds

Posted by Renata Elias September 04, 2015

The ability to communicate with employees, insurers, brokers, and others before, during, and after a catastrophic event is one of the greatest challenges of disaster preparedness, according to a recent Marsh qualitative survey. We asked risk professionals to describe the most difficult thing to manage during or in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster.

One respondent noted that in 2005, “Due to Hurricane Katrina, we were not able to communicate with our on-site managers. Land lines, cell phones, and internet were not available for weeks.” Hurricane Katrina, knocked out power for about 2.5 million people, and took out more than 3 million phone lines.

Downed Lines, Damaged Communications

Several survey respondents said that maintaining real-time communications with local managers and employees affected by a disaster was difficult, which frustrated immediate relief efforts, property damage mitigation, and the effective implementation of business continuity plans.

Following Katrina, another noted: “Our TV station was submerged under 10 feet of water. Getting operations back up and functioning to a level that competed with our peers was our greatest priority.”

As respondents pointed out, unreliable communications can prevent companies from relaying important information to their impacted locations or from quelling unsubstantiated rumors, affecting their ability to quickly be back up and running.                                                          

The Lessons Learned

When asked to describe what they do differently now as a result of lessons learned from the event, responses related to communications included:

  1. Put backup communications in place and test them regularly.
  2. Consider providing site leadership with satellite phones.  
  3. Stay in contact with employees, provide them a means to get updates, and confirm their safety, through toll-free numbers and emergency notification systems.
  4. Establish procedures for each location to report on its status, damage, and ability to restore operations.
  5. Communicate with all stakeholders on the company’s overall status.

Lessons, outside of communications, included:

  • Have clear emergency response plans with specific immediate actions to take in the case of a disaster.
  • Develop a business continuity plan. and consider alternate work sites or other workarounds for extended disruptions.
  • Establish response teams, provide regular training, and conduct exercises annually, at a minimum.

Educate employees regarding preparations and protective actions, conduct regular drills so employees know what to do in an emergency. Going through a disaster brings valuable experience, not only regarding the nuts and bolts of disaster planning, but on the human toll. One respondent said that a particular disaster “did make me more aware of the emotional impact of an accident and helped me to be more compassionate with future situations.”

Well-planned communications can help in all aspects of disaster management, from operational issues to timely insurance claims to helping prepare employees.

Renata Elias

Consultant, Marsh Risk Consulting Strategic Risk Practice