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As climate changes creates an environment ripe for surprise storms, businesses need to prepare to receive little to no warning signs.

When a tropical storm is brewing, news alerts, articles, and broadcasts closely monitor the situation; meteorologists provide updates on a storm’s severity over a matter of days. In this time, people in the danger zones and nearby areas can either hunker down or evacuate.

When Hurricane Otis stuck Acapulco, Mexico last month, residents and visitors weren’t given this advanced notice. According to the Daily, a New York Times Podcast, few meteorologists viewed Otis as a threat—but the storm rapidly intensified over a 24-hour period. To compare, a rapidly-accelerating storm is usually classified as growing 35 mph in a 24-hour period. Otis ended up being a “nightmare scenario,” as the tropical storm grew into a Category 5 hurricane, and slammed Acapulco with 165-205 mph winds. According to early reports, at least 47 people died due to Otis. Power lines down, buildings were flooded, landslides were triggered and in many areas power and cell phone service was/is cut off.

Understanding Your Position

With El Niño conditions in play and ocean temperatures warming, these surprise weather events will likely continue. From the business continuity perspective, it’s critical to know the risks associated with a location, whether you’re sending people to travel to a tropical destination during hurricane season, or where you decide to invest in infrastructure. Business travel has increased significantly now that the pandemic is behind us. But, sending people to potentially dangerous spaces are still a risk.

If a company places a building in a tropical location that could be exposed to a nightmare-scenario event such as Hurricane Otis, that needs to be prominently featured in a business continuity plan.

“This storm really demonstrates the need for preplanning and preunderstanding what risks you’re entering into .” says Josh Dozor, former Deputy Assistant Administrator of FEMA and current General Manager of Medical and Security Assistance at International SOS, a leading risk mitigation company.

“It’s reasonable to expect, especially under El Niño conditions in the Pacific, that the frequency of storms is always prevalent, so we have to be on our toes,” he continues. “Our risk managers need to be watching the hurricane center, the Mexico hurricane center, the weather services for these alerts, and proactively pushing these alerts and notifications to our staff when they get in harm’s way.”

It’s also critical for organizations to anticipate severe weather events throughout the hurricane season, which lasts until Dec. 1. Too often, Dozor says, organizations can become complacent after the most active period of the season, generally around August and September. “Particularly when you’re in America, when it gets cooler, the concern for storms tend to fade once October rolls in,” he says.

When selecting a site for building, choosing a spot to host a conference, or deciding whether to send executives or employees on business, it’s critical to factor in the safety and security of the surrounding areas. Paul Docuet, Regional Director of Security Intelligence and Assistance with International SOS, believes this is a critical aspect of business continuity that needs to be factored into plans.

“When you’re picking a destination, in this case, thinking of Acapulco as a destination among others, one of the problems with Acapulco is the wider security environment around it,” he says. “If you wanted to leave Acapulco, and the airport was knocked out, which it was, and you want to leave on land, then you’re going elsewhere into Guerrero state, which is one of the highest risk parts of Mexico.

“Acapulco is not ideally situated in that sense, where, even if there were to be a disaster, and your main points of departure from that location where you work efficiently from is knocked out, then you need to have that secondary option.” Senior management has to keep this in mind; how many escape route options do your people have, if a disaster were to strike?

Preparing For Anything

Now, even if executives are closely monitoring a situation, there’s not a lot that can be done quickly to fortify buildings if a massive storm unexpectedly rolls in. It’s important to work toward safeguarding buildings, especially those exposed in an event like Hurricane Otis, on a consist basis.

“If you’re building in a flood zone, you’re assuming the risk in your location,” says Dozor. “The first consideration is roof structure and stability. There are building standards in place to ensure structures can be stable in a certain amount of the wind power. That will help you withstand flooding inside the building.

“The second is: what are your communication plans? If cell service is down and phone lines are down. Then there’s power—do you have generator power for your central systems? And with fuel ready to go to make sure generators are able to withstand for a longer duration of time? Is your building generator ready? Are your power systems designed to receive a generator if an outage takes place? If your power system is not set up to receive an external generator, then you can’t buy a generator at the store and facilitate an immediate recovery.”

For facilities like hotels and hospitals, having stockpiles available will be invaluable during a crisis. Carrying other extra emergency supplies and provisions is also important. This is critical if you’re in the middle of a period of outage, when you can’t get in touch with anyone. Without great satellite signal, there’s not great continuation of communication with the island. “Even if you call someone once, you can’t be confident that you’ll be able to reach them again.”

Dozor also highlights the importance of making sure not just your plans are in place, but that your people and systems are as prepared as possible, too.

“We’ve seen business continuity plans which are limited to the facility, and to its own power systems,” he says. “You’re really got to look at the array of systems, personnel, and processes. And, if any one of them are away, can you execute any or all of it? When systems are down or when there’s people away? For an event where your executives are gone, do you have delegations of authorities in place to maintain business continuity during the period of time? It could be a day, it could be three days, it could be a week or longer.”

Click here for more insights about preparing for surprise storms and other natural disasters.
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