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Disaster Plan Stands Test of Hurricane Andrew

June 1, 1993
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In the early morning hours of August 24, 1992, the winds and rains of Hurricane Andrew swept across south Florida with unparalleled devastation and destruction. Our office in Homestead, Florida, was destroyed almost completely. Water damaged our Twelfth Street location and our main office building in Kendall, Florida, leaving both facilities without power or drinking water for several days.

Hardest hit, however, were our workers. The hurricane affected more than 85% of the 430 employees who work for Atlanta-based BellSouth Advertising and Publishing Co. (BAPCO) in its south Florida operations. Many of the company's families huddled together helplessly as the storm shattered their homes and lives. It took Hurricane Andrew only a few hours to turn residential and business areas into rubble. Like the hurricane, the shock of the initial media reports blew away our corporate denial forever. A disaster can strike us. It did.

The chance of having a monstrous hurricane or earthquake devastate your organization may be pretty slim, but the odds are high that your organization could experience a traumatic, critical incident, which could seriously disrupt your business. A majority of CEOs in ongoing studies agree that in today's world, workplace crises and disasters are inevitable. Therefore, the operative question in crisis-readiness planning isn't if but when.

As BAPCO's benefits manager, I can look back to April 1992 and say that we were fortunate. Why? Because when Hurricane Andrew struck south Florida, we were prepared. As a company, we had taken seriously the possibility of a disaster striking us.

Seven months earlier, we had implemented a disaster plan, just in case. Consequently, when Hurricane Andrew struck, BAPCO was ready to deal with the devastation that was left in the storm's wake.

Our preparedness didn't go unnoticed. Four companies that have facilities in south Florida have called me to ask such questions as: "How on earth did your people get up and get going so quickly?" "How is it that your employees already are productive, while our work force is still in utter chaos?" I answered those questions with the same pride in our people and management that now prompts this article.

The whole process began after I read an article that discussed the traumatic stress associated with threats of violence and critical workplace incidents. It also detailed the debilitating effects that trauma can have on employees and organizations. It was frightening.

After reading the article, it occurred to me that almost every company has a plan in place for the recovery of buildings, computers, data systems and equipment, including ours. An organization's most important asset, however, is its work force. I knew that we needed a plan that could deal with the human side of crisis management.

The article listed several companies that could provide us with the type of crisis-management training that we were looking for. It also listed traumatic-stress intervention services if the unthinkable should happen.

I immediately called Bruce Blythe, president and CEO of Crisis Management International (CMI), whose company was mentioned in the article and, like ours, is based in Atlanta. We had a long discussion about crisis management and the services his organization could provide.

How I sold the crisis-management program to management.
My next step was to sell the idea to management. I began by talking with Barry Mansell, BAPCO's director of human resources. In a meeting, I presented Mansell with:

  • A brief outline of what I thought a crisis team should look like
  • A copy of the article
  • Notes from my phone conversation with Blythe.

After Mansell read the article, I made a proposal to him that BAPCO develop a human-oriented crisis-management team. The article did a good job of showing him that we needed to supplement our crisis-readiness planning in this area. I suggested that we select eight or nine people from human resources to be on this team. The reasoning was simple. These individuals already had experience in such areas as benefits, insurance, workers' compensation, safety and relocation. Their experience would be invaluable (see "How BAPCO Selected and Organized Its Crisis-management Team").

I then told Mansell that I would like CMI to train our team in the basics of crisis readiness. I explained that the process would include one full day of training. The training would teach the team (and other members of management who wanted to participate):

  1. What traumatic stress is, and what it does to employees and other individuals involved in a critical incident.

  2. How the effects of traumatic stress on our employees could then impact the company in lost time, increased benefits costs, rehabilitation and disability costs, and lower morale and productivity.

  3. How to mitigate the impact of traumatic stress and help accelerate recovery.

For example, CMI would teach the team to provide psychological triage-assessing the immediate needs of traumatic-stress victims and providing psychological first aid. We would learn the right (and wrong) ways to provide immediate management response.

When Mansell asked me what I meant by the wrong ways, I gave him one example that Blythe had mentioned. In an effort to be caring, management often will allow everyone to go home after a crisis. This, Blythe had explained, might be the wrong thing to do because traumatized persons don't need to be isolated. Instead, they need immediate support and information.

Mansell then asked me, "How do you do that?" I told him that CMI would teach us how to hold deescalation meetings with employees before they left the site. This would involve:

  • Giving employees as much information as possible
  • Explaining to employees the normal physical and emotional reactions to traumatic stress (so that they would understand these difficult responses, and realize that others were having the same problems)
  • Giving employees schedules for the special debriefing sessions with CMI's counselors (if we had determined that we needed professional assistance).

CMI also would train us in understanding traumatic-stress reactions and provide us with handouts that we could give to employees and their family members. We would learn to prepare for the special intervention services that CMI would provide and to assist in any follow-up with affected employees. CMI also would teach us to give death notifications and assist grieving families.

The idea behind the training was to have a well-trained team of people who could respond to any BAPCO crisis anywhere. We would accomplish this by communicating first with local management by phone to help them develop guidelines for their immediate response in stabilizing the situation. The next step would be to arrive at the scene as quickly as possible. We would become the "go-team" for crisis management.

Our training also would include assessing the need for professional assistance. If we determined that we needed assistance, we would contact CMI.

The company has a rapid-deployment system that includes a network of trained intervention specialists throughout the country. Once on the scene, our team would coordinate with the local management and implement the crisis-response procedures.

Mansell immediately recognized the need and the advantages of establishing and training a specialized crisis team. He gave me the go-ahead and offered his support. I returned to my office to call Blythe and schedule the training.

The day of training led by CMI was exciting, challenging and frightening. We were walking into totally new territory. We saw slides and videos of numerous types of disasters in which CMI had been called in to assist. These were corporate crises, and we couldn't imagine anything so terrible ever happening to BAPCO.

All that we knew regarding traumatic stress was what we had read about war veterans and post-traumatic stress disorder. Now we saw and heard the real-life stories of traumatic incidents in the workplace, and learned about the damage that traumatic stress can cause to employees' lives and to the productive, financial life of a corporation.

We studied and rehearsed our tasks in immediate crisis-response. Although this was new ground, we began to feel some sense of competence, of readiness. One full day of training was only the tip of the iceberg, but we knew that we were better-prepared than most companies. The real test would come, however, when we actually faced a disaster.

Hurricane Andrew puts the BAPCO training to the test.
Seven months later, Hurricane Andrew struck south Florida. The first thing that our crisis team did when we reached south Florida was meet with our local BAPCO management. We quickly established a cooperative and supportive working relationship. This was their turf, and local management needed to stay in charge of their own areas. Their knowledge, talents and experience in the local setting, and their understanding of the cultures represented, were crucial. Decisions had to be made and solutions found quickly, and it had to be a cooperative effort to succeed.

Our team members weren't the only people to respond to the disaster. Our president, Don Perozzi, and key executive staff members traveled to the disaster site to help us assess the needs and to authorize the best assistance possible. We called CMI, and Blythe began deploying counselors to south Dade County, Florida. At my request, Blythe also came to orchestrate the intervention effort. Then Perozzi empowered me to, as he put it, "do what you need to do to help our people."

Hurricane Andrew's fury forever changed the lives of more than 400 BAPCO employees. I hugged most of them, and their spouses, too. Many were weeping, having lost literally everything. Some could only stare, speechless with psychological injury. There were the children to think about, too.

We put our arms around the affected employees and their families. We tried to meet every need of our broken, shattered work force. Because of our recent training, we had both competence and confidence. We were able to organize a structured response quickly. As employees came straggling in, we were ready with guidelines and handouts.

We quickly devised a questionnaire form so that we would have a record of each individual's needs. We arranged for shelter immediately and then gave each individual (or family) an opportunity to sit down with a CMI counselor. Shelter from the emotional storms that were raging inside our employees was just as important as shelter from the elements outside.

We then went looking for those who hadn't or couldn't come in. By phone, by car, on foot and through the media, we reached every employee. We took counselors with us. Miraculously, the hurricane killed none of our employees or their family members, although many would relate individual horror stories. One family of four huddled under a mattress in a closet, and then, after five unimaginable hours, came out to find that the closet was the only part of the house that was left standing.

Caring for these employees emotionally was as crucial as the assessment forms they filled out, listing their needs. Because we were organized, we were able to meet those needs-shelter, water, food, clothes, diapers or money. All that remained to many of our employees was their dignity. We tried hard to help them retain that dignity by letting them have some sense of control over their futures.

We did this by letting them direct the process. They understood their needs better than we did, so we let them make their own decisions. The homeless could choose either an apartment or a house. We let them determine what they could spend. They had a choice of rental cars (most needed transportation), with BAPCO-arranged discounts. If they needed to work half-days to meet with contractors (or whatever their needs might demand), we approved that.

We didn't make assistance decisions for them. Instead, we gave employees options and choices. As a result, those individuals who had lost so much were able to retain their dignity and a sense of control over their situations. As we had learned in our training, this is an important aspect of emotional recovery. Our policy was extremely flexible in letting people do what they needed to do to get their lives together and back to normal. It was a good policy.

Because our crisis team was so organized, we were able to meet each need quickly. Supplies of every imaginable sort arrived by the truckload. BAPCO employees everywhere were donating items that we usually take for granted but that meant so much to the survivors. Employees loaded the items onto trailer trucks, which were then piggybacked by rail to south Florida.

We turned the third floor of BAPCO's Kendall building (where our crisis command center was located) into a huge store. We called it BellMart.

Our employees and their families were welcome to take food, lanterns, stoves, clothes or whatever they needed. BAPCO didn't charge employees for the items, nor did it keep any type of records. If employees needed something, the company encouraged them to take it. Some of our employees brought neighbors and friends with them. They had similar needs, and we were glad to share with them.

Other persons on our crisis team headed up the work of finding shelter. All families walking in and telling us their homes were gone were provided with housing the same day.

Psychological support complements physical support.
Allowing employees to take control of meeting their own needs was important to their psychological well-being, but most people who have been through such a crisis need additional help to deal adequately with the trauma. From day one, CMI counselors worked shoulder-to-shoulder with us.

The counselors helped individuals and worked with groups everywhere and anywhere. Some groups simply sat on the floor with a counselor, getting the psychological first aid that they so desperately needed.

We then organized small debriefing groups, each led by a CMI counselor. Although conducted in a relaxed and informal manner, these group debriefing sessions, which lasted approximately two hours each, were carefully planned to provide:

  1. Information:
    Company management and CMI brought our people and their families up-to-date with the information that was available. Our training had taught us that traumatized people have a great need for information. Sharing the information as a group and agreeing on the facts helped us resolve rumors and misinformation, which often result in nightmares and other intrusive thoughts.

  2. Immediate therapeutic aid:
    Through shared reactions and the normalizing process, our employees and their family members were able to:
    • Share with others their feelings and their experiences
    • Talk with each other about their emotional and physical symptoms
    • Understand together that these reactions and responses to traumatic stress are normal.

    This normalizing process was very healing. It helped bewildered and traumatized individuals realize that it's normal to have anxiety reactions, sleep disorders, nightmares, flashbacks, startle responses, concentration difficulties and a host of other physical and emotional symptoms. Many realized that they were okay and weren't going crazy after all.

  3. Education:
    CMI offered employees information on how to manage traumatic stress. During each session, counselors helped people with their emotional needs. They helped employees understand what they could expect in the way of normal (although often very difficult) reactions to such a traumatic, ongoing experience. The counselors discussed the coping skills that employees could use. CMI also established support structures and arranged buddy systems.

Throughout the counseling process, employees shared simple food and beverages. There were tears, smiles, and hope as these people climbed together toward a normal life again. CMI counselors held more than 50 debriefing sessions. They even directed anxiety-management sessions for our managers.

When some of our employees couldn't make it in for these sessions, we went to them. Again, we took the counselors with us. We drove and walked and climbed over rubble, and we found pitiful homes, but not pitiful people. Living in ruins, but with pride and dignity intact, they were fighting back, and we supported them well.

Our EAP staff was involved in helping employees from the start. As healing occurred, a transition from CMI psychologists to our EAP counselors took place. We made this transition in steps. As recovery progressed, CMI left one psychologist with us, and our people were given free access to him. After three weeks, the last CMI professional returned to Atlanta, and we hired a local psychologist who was well-trained in traumatic and cumulative-stress management. Our people went to her as needed. She remained the focal point for emotional needs for several more weeks. We then directed employees to our EAP counselors for any additional needs. Emotional recovery was remarkably rapid.

"Our people used the information we provided to take control of their broken lives and to start the process of putting them back together."

Adults weren't the only people who needed assistance. We worked out a special arrangement with KinderCare so that children were picked up at our workplaces and taken by a van to the KinderCare facilities. (KinderCare normally picks up children only at schools.) BAPCO paid all the child-care costs for the first three weeks, then discounted rates were arranged if continued care was needed. CMI counselors specializing in child psychology visited the KinderCare facilities, helping the children, and helping the child-care workers, training them in dealing with little ones who had suffered such trauma.

Parents in our work force also attended counselor-led sessions to help them understand what was happening in their children's lives. They shared information on the best ways that parents could help their children through this difficult time. Many of CMI's handouts were in Spanish as well as English, which was important in this area. We quickly translated other materials into Spanish, especially handouts that the employees took home with them to assist them in meeting the needs of their children during the crisis.

Anxiety-ridden employees need a lot of information.
Because BAPCO is a communications company, we know how important it is to share information with employees. Our readiness training with CMI had affirmed that persons under great stress and anxiety need inordinate amounts of information.

Consequently, we issued daily bulletins filled with every imaginable item of information, such as where to get free ice, roofing paper or diapers. We organized a communications committee. It included representatives from each local BAPCO company in every area of operations, including sales, printing and production. This allowed us to cover all the necessary bases.

We let everyone know everything-what had been done, what was happening and what was coming. With the bulletins, we circulated more questionnaires, constantly updating our knowledge of individual and family status and needs.

We started listing BAPCO people who were volunteering to help others. There were a dozen at first. Later there were more than 100.

These lists included what the volunteers would do. I especially loved the fact that the majority of these individuals had indicated that they could help by providing "anything" or "whatever." Our people used the information to take control of their broken lives and start putting them back together.

Slowly but surely, employees began to work again. Some employers worked for just a few hours, other people for half a day.

Managers were sensitive to this gradual transition from personal needs to business needs. Managers were victims and survivors, too. To help ease the transition, BAPCO executives authorized the labor-relations staff to design a flexible-attendance policy. This made certain that workers wouldn't be penalized for hours they had to miss working because of personal needs.

The organization started to come together again. Production geared up, and sales and distribution began to function.

When I wrote this story, only nine weeks had passed since Hurricane Andrew struck south Florida. In spite of all the terrible losses and anguish, there was a lot of good that had happened during those trying weeks. We had been prepared. We had been trained and competent. We had had the right kind of professional assistance. We had moved quickly, with a focused, structured response. We had taken the best care we could of our people.

We astonished a lot of people at how quickly we got our organization up and operating again. South Florida still looked like a war zone, but although there was a great deal yet to do, BAPCO was back in business. That's when those "How did you do it so quickly?" calls began.

Personnel Journal, June 1993, Vol. 72, No. 6, pp. 36-43.

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