Here’s what HR can do to prepare for Hurricane Dorian

As of this writing, Hurricane Dorian had reached Category 3 status (with winds of 115 miles per hour) and was expected to make landfall somewhere on Florida’s east coast right around Labor Day. By the time the storm reaches the state, it’s expected to reach Category 4 status (with winds of 145 mph), according to the National Hurricane Center. Experts predict the slow-moving Dorian will cause extensive damage to parts of Florida, particularly the major metro areas.

Dorian most likely won’t be the last major weather event the continental U.S. will see this year. Not only is hurricane season just getting underway, but scientists predict we’ll see more intense events like these as climate change continues to roil global weather patterns.

Considering the risks these major storms present to lives and property, HR has a key role to play in helping their organizations prepare for and cope with the aftermath.

Walmart, which has nearly 400 stores and facilities in Florida and employs close to 106,000 people in the state, is–like most national retailers–no stranger to coping with natural disasters.

Preparing for an event like a hurricane is a “team effort,” from store-level employees to the staff at the company’s Emergency Operations Center to those who’ll be responsible for making repairs afterward, says Jeff Lee, Walmart’s chief for people support and strategy at its EOC.

In addition to ensuring it has updated contact information for its employees and that they have key numbers to call for assistance, the retailer has put a number of programs in place to help employees. These include a program to assist full- and part-timers who miss work due to their store being closed and opportunities for employees to work at another Walmart location, says Lee.

The retailer’s Resources for Living program makes licensed counselors available to employees at no charge to them, says Lee, while employees who suffer a “severe loss” due to a weather event can obtain financial assistance through its Associate in Critical Need Trust program.

Employees tend to have common questions before and after an event, typically around whether their facility is closed, when they can return to work and whether they can assist with helping the facility re-open, says Lee. However, the most frequent question is “How are my fellow associates?”

“They genuinely are concerned about the well-being of one another,” he says.

Terry Lyles, a stress consultant and author of the soon-to-be-released book Performance Under Pressure: Crack Your Personal Stress Code and Live the Life of Your Dreams, has worked with emergency responders and members of the armed forces dealing with the aftermath of natural disasters. One of the most important things organizations can do, he says, is to keep in mind that employees are often preoccupied with an upcoming weather event even as they’re trying to do their jobs.

“They’re trying to deal with life as they’re working–’Will I have access to fresh water, will I have enough fuel, how can I keep my family safe’–so be really sensitive to peoples’ psyches during times like these,” he says.

Lyles–who, incidentally, is based in South Florida–adds that in the wake of a hurricane or other extreme weather event, an invaluable approach to stress management is to try and keep things in perspective.

“The important thing is to try and control the ‘controllables,’ ” he says. “If you’ve survived without major loss of life or losing your house, then count your blessings and stay focused. All the rest of it is simply clean-up and doing what you have to do.”

For employees faced with major home property damage, the hurricane-related stress will (naturally) be intensified.

Ann Cosimano, general counsel for insurer ARAG, wrote in this piece for us last year about the precautions employers and their workers need to take in order to guard against identity theft and consumer scams in the wake of storms. Homeowners can be especially vulnerable to scams while they’re in the process of trying to find contractors to repair storm-related damage, she writes. They can also be confused or uninformed about their rights and responsibilities in such matters–for example, they’re responsible for clean-up and removal of damage from their property even when the damage came from a fallen tree limb from their neighbors’ property (unless the homeowner can prove negligence on the part of their neighbor in maintaining the property). Employees should be made aware of the red flags to watch out for when evaluating contractors (for example, providing estimates that are much lower than competitors’) and to have all contracts reviewed by an attorney before signing them.

HR should also be ready to help their companies avoid public-relations disasters. During Hurricane Irma last year, some Florida residents complained of being coerced by their employers to report to work regardless of the storm or else be fired. Companies such as Lowes and Pizza Hut blamed “rogue managers” for violating company policy by requiring them to work, but the damage was done.

Companies shouldn’t just have a communication plan in place–they should also be prepared for the likelihood that their normal modes of communication will be disrupted.

“Whether it’s email, Zoom or Skype, your regular format for communicating may not work during or immediately after a hurricane,” says Renata Elias, a vice president and consultant with Marsh Risk Consulting. It’s best for organizations to prepare ahead of time by setting up an 800 number for employees to dial into and consider alternate ways of sending out information, such as a Twitter feed, she says.

“Make sure employees know about these alternatives,” says Elias. “A robust plan for events like hurricanes should have built-in redundancies.”

HR should ensure their contingency plans address the questions employees are likely to have, such as whether or not they’ll continue to be paid if the workplace remains closed, when they’ll be able to return and whether help will be available for employees whose homes have been lost or severely damaged, she says.

“The quicker employees are back on their feet at home, the quicker they can get back to the workplace,” says Elias.

Andrew R. McIlvaine
Andrew R. McIlvaine is former senior editor with Human Resource Executive®.