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Are You Prepared for a Mega-Crisis?

What Hurricane Sandy Taught Us About Resilience…and the Importance of a Crisis Mindset

A little over a year ago, our agency found itself suddenly “homeless.”   The Financial District, where we work and some of us live, had been flooded by Hurricane Sandy and weeks after the storm, our neighborhood was without power, passable roads, or working ground floor infrastructure (no open banks, burger joints, or, more importantly, Starbucks).  We couldn’t get into our office building, many of us still couldn’t get into our apartments, and public transportation was struggling back to life at a snail’s pace, which made it impossible to get around (flooded subway stations and tunnels brought much of life to a complete standstill). 

While we, and most of the city, faced a crisis of unimagined proportions, to our many clients outside the city, life was business as usual.  And several of them had business issues or crises of their own that needed immediate counsel and response. Crisis management is a part of our business, so of course, we thought we were prepared be responsive and keep our company up and running without a glitch. And, for the most part, we were.  However, we also learned some valuable lessons that may help us, and our clients, to be better prepared in the future.

Redundant is Good: More Redundant is Better

Any smart business today has back-up systems for its back-up systems.  Technology infrastructures often have elaborate back-ups in multiple geographies to ensure against site compromise (witness the large NYU Hospital Medical complex that was under 13 feet of water and lost all generator power; it was able to retrieve backed-up patient records and oversee ongoing patient care at other facilities within hours of the flood).  However, businesses -- especially smaller businesses -- need to think beyond the obvious technical and operations back-ups, especially when it comes to communications.  We, for example, had planned to rely on routing our office phones to our cell phones in an emergency, but discovered that our main lines would be inoperable for months and could not be used for routing (so much for what happens when sea water meets copper wiring).  The only option was to direct all callers and link our mobiles to our Boston office… and to call or email everyone in our database to let them know not to call our main number.

Crisis Staffing, When Your Team Is Living in the Midst of the Crisis Themselves

When a company puts together its crisis communications plan, there are always carefully assigned responsibilities, command chains, and contact protocols.  Frequently, these plans and procedures are rehearsed on a regular basis and mock crisis scenarios run.  What happens, however, when the people who are assigned to crisis response tasks are in the crisis themselves? In the case of Sandy, so many found themselves with no homes to go to, no access to clothes or medication, no ability to get to their pets or loved ones, and for many, days of living in the cold and dark until power was restored.

Our team began planning for the worst, as the city was shutting down…a full 24 hours before the storm hit.  We arranged alternate workspaces, apartment sharing, and a buddy network to be certain everyone was supported…and able to work at full capacity.  We also did not minimize the emotional impact of the pending disaster; we put people’s needs first.  Simple things like food, light, and clean clothes were high priorities. We were ever grateful when there were areas of the city where pizza delivery and take-out Chinese returned to life after only a few days…and celebrated the discovery that many on our staff know how to whip up a great meal by flashlight.

Building a Crisis Ready Culture…Teamwork Under Pressure

Most of us have been helping clients with issues management and crisis planning for years, so we’re trained to spring into action when the unexpected occurs.  What we learned during Sandy was the difference our team’s made to our success.  Without realizing it, we had built a crisis ready culture…and much of that stemmed from spending our days in a workplace that celebrates risk taking, camaraderie, and above all, a can-do attitude.  When the only place in my apartment I could get a cell phone signal was the middle of my bed, I huddled there one morning with a colleague to listen to a client earnings call. We didn’t complain, we poured Diet Coke into champagne glasses, broke out the caviar, and turned the event into a celebration. (It helped that there were record earnings.)  

While we all camped out a various apartments during the day (often with displaced lawyers, bankers, and others who were improvising offices where they could find them), we continued to support one another 24-7. We pulled together to help our clients, and as important, we pulled together to help one another.When we hire in the future, we will always ask “would I want to spend a week with this person in a natural disaster?”

Making Gratitude as a Discipline: The Importance of Celebrating Even the Small Victories 

In the first days after the storm hit, everyone in New York who survived in one piece was feeling grateful for what they had…even if it was only a few bottles of water and a working flashlight.  In the spirit on most disasters, people flocked to volunteer to help others less fortunate.  After a few weeks, however, the news story was old, the weather had turned cold, and those still facing challenges began to lose hope (or their tempers).  

We realized early on that, because we are headquartered in what was one of the worst hit areas of the city (much of the Financial District’s infrastructure was not fully functioning for nearly eight months), it would not be business as usual for us for quite some time. And, we knew that on a personal level, patience would wear thin.  That’s when we began the practice of taking time every week look to look at the “half full” part of the glass…to celebrate progress, what was working, and how far we had come.  In the beginning, we were grateful for simple things like the Con Ed trucks that arrived downtown with power strips so we could charge our mobile devices. Then we were grateful when the lines to access the trucks got shorter, and were overjoyed when a coffee truck would show up so we could have caffeine while waiting in line.   

Ultimately, our gratitude focused more on things beyond Hurricane Sandy’s impact on our daily lives.  We were grateful for our first responders and our community, who helped us move forward.  We were grateful for the work ethic and expertise of our colleagues, who pushed us to do our work just a bit better…just to prove no storm could get the best of us. And we were, and are, grateful to our wonderful clients, who were all so thoughtful and supportive in the weeks after the storm hit.  We could not hope for better partners.

In the end, we all were reminded how important it is to stop to celebrate small victories and forward progress…and not only in a crisis.  As an agency, we are always “putting out fires,” rushing to meet deadlines, and driven to fix whatever seems not to be working well.  Sometimes this gets in the way of our paying attention to what is working and on progress made.  And if we don’t celebrate these victories, how can we expect our clients to?

We hope to never experience a Hurricane Sandy again, but we are grateful that we, and so many of our fellow New Yorkers, pulled through.  And, we are grateful for the lessons we learned.


By Katarina Wenk-Bodenmiller, account manager, Sommerfield Communications