MIAMI and CHARLOTTE, N.C. (9/1/11)--Not until a disaster strikes is the link between business and community truly realized, according to David Paulison, former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Credit unions, like other businesses, need to be prepared for disasters. While there is no clear blueprint, there are several key actions a credit union can take. Paulison is working with CUNA Strategic Services provider Agility Recovery and others to help prepare businesses and credit unions for disaster. His advice comes on the heels of Hurricane Irene and just in time to observe September as National Preparedness Month. Roughly 40% to 60% of America’s small- to medium-sized businesses close after experiencing a disaster. "These businesses are simply lost forever, never to reopen their doors to the communities they serve," Paulison said, noting that when this happens the surrounding communities are slow to respond. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew displaced more than one million people in Florida and Louisiana. Until Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Andrew’s heavy rains and tornadoes resulted in what was the most expensive hurricane in U.S. history. Countless businesses were lost and it took more than 10 years for South Dade County, Fla., to recover, said Paulison, who retired as fire chief of Miami-Dade County, Fla. in 2001. He was with FEMA from 2005 through 2009. "These events, either natural or manmade are happening all the time and with increasing frequency, most of the time with little or no warning," he said. "Most firms react too late with little or no time to prepare--most operate completely behind the curve." "Hurricane Katrina was one of the most destructive disasters the country has faced, but the faults in the response and recovery following the storm were mostly due to a lack of preparedness," he said. "Katrina was a national catastrophe--it affected the environment and the economy, our infrastructure and our national pride," he said. "However, what Hurricane Katrina really did was expose a nationwide lack of planning and preparedness. And it doesn’t stop with hurricanes." With FEMA, he evaluated disasters across the country. "I saw the same thing in almost every city--most places were not prepared. Businesses were not prepared, individuals were not prepared, and the cities themselves were not prepared." The problem exists whether it is a flood, ice storm, or tornado, he said. He breaks the failures into three deficiencies: Lack of imagination; lack of investment; and lack of willingness to act. "Individuals, businesses and government cannot imagine the types of events that can occur in their city or region and therefore are reactive in their decision making rather than proactive," Paulison said. He cites a lack of investment in preparedness, including planning, training, and assessment of the durability of facilities. "Time after time I’ve gone to hospitals that have generators stored in the basement,so any time there’s a flood, these become inoperable. Often times we recognize these things that have to be done, but we lack the willingness to act." "There is no clear blueprint to preparing your credit union for a disaster, but there are several key actions a leader should take regardless of the size of your credit union or geographic location," he advises. Among them:
* Perform a risk assessment. What in your community could cause the most damage and what is most likely to happen? When I ask local business leaders, 'Who is your local emergency manager,' 80% of the time they do not have a clue." Credit unions can use these emergency managers to determine the most vulnerable aspects of their business and what’s most likely to happen in the community. * Plan for the unknown. Be creative, yet practical. No one would have ever predicted half of the states in the northeast would go without power because someone threw the wrong switch. "Unforeseen events are going to happen, so credit unions everywhere must be prepared." * Make sure you have an emergency response plan and kit readily available in your home and office. It’s not tough to have a kit ready and well worth the investment of time and money compared to the potential losses of both. PrepareMyBusiness.org provides a checklist of items for a business disaster recovery kit, he said. * Be prepared to survive alone for at least 72 hours. "Credit unions must also be prepared to act alone in their recovery for a minimum of three days. Where are the weak points in your communication plan? Where will you relocate your branches to if one or more are inaccessible? How will you handle the increased demand for cash withdrawals?"
Ask what you personally
need proof for, if you are without access to your home--passport, driver's license, credit cards, insurance papers, photos of the rooms in your house. Take all of this information and put it in a ‘go’ kit to take during an evacuation," he advised. Consider how you will contact your family and establish a central meeting location if you become separated. "The recent earthquake in Virginia affected cell networks all over the northeast, with voice calls nearly impossible in some areas. Be sure you, your family and your co-workers know that text-based messaging may be the only means of communication." Preparing for a disaster also entails the access to key assets to get your credit union up and running quickly and efficiently, Paulison said. Ensure access to things like power generators, office equipment, information technology infrastructure, and the satellite bandwidth to ensure communications. "This can be a fairly large undertaking for small and midsized businesses, so seek out a reputable business continuity solution provider to handle these needs," he said. "When you can ensure access to the tools necessary to get your operations back up and running in the first couple of days following a disaster, then the recovery happens a lot quicker. In fact, if only gas and grocery stores can remain open, that takes care of 80% of a community’s needs. Disaster preparedness is the responsibility of every part of our society--individuals and families, businesses, communities, and government. When any one of these elements fails, the whole system collapses."