In recent years, there have been fires in California, earthquakes in Mexico and devastating hurricanes in Puerto Rico, the Caribbean and the U.S. All these natural disasters can take a significant toll on people and communities. Making sure you and your loved ones are safe after such a crisis is priority No. 1, but for business owners, ensuring you can rebuild and resume operations after a natural disaster is next in line. Fortunately, there are specific actions you can take to set your company up for the best possible outcome.
Weather and climate catastrophes can be overwhelming, but you’ll likely find these crises easier to deal with if you have a solid game plan in place. Industry experts offered the following tips for rebuilding your business after a natural disaster.
David Rusenko, former CEO of Weebly, said that initial communication and sharing information about what happened to your company and its infrastructure is key.
“It’s hard to figure out where to prioritize when your business is hit by a natural disaster,” Rusenko said. “While you get organized and figure out a plan, it’s critical to communicate as quickly and transparently as possible with your existing customers and new customers who are searching for you online.”
One of your first steps, he suggested, should be updating your website’s homepage or blog to let clients know how you’ve been affected by the event. Customers’ patience, empathy and support will only get stronger when they realize that one of their favorite small businesses has been impacted by the natural disaster.
Thomas Phelps, vice president of corporate strategy and chief information officer at Laserfiche, added that using your business’s website, social media channels and text message marketing tools to reach your employees, customers, partners and vendors is vital. Not everyone interacts with your company in the same way, so you want to make sure you’re providing information via multiple forums.
It’s also crucial to touch base with your team members to ensure they are not in any immediate danger in the disaster’s wake. While it’s understandable that any damage to your company headquarters will be top of mind, the state of your team is just as important.
Once you’ve confirmed your employees are safe and accounted for after a disaster, survey the damage to your business’s location, Phelps suggested. Contact your insurance company to file a claim. The insurer will likely ask you to take photos of the damage and may send an adjuster to evaluate the property.
Long before you wind up in this situation, however, you should do occasional checkups to ensure you have adequate insurance and legal coverage for major disasters and their potential consequences. For example, office break-ins and vandalism may occur during a natural disaster. If someone steals computer equipment or paper documents containing personally identifiable information and the information was not encrypted, you may have a legal requirement to notify customers, Phelps said. To be safe, always encrypt your customer data, digitize paper documents and store all critical data in a secure, cloud-based document management system. [Check out our small business guide to computer encryption and cloud computing guide.]
Natural (or other) disasters are one of many insurance risks your business should be prepared for. The particular risks your company might face vary depending on your industry, location and the technology you use, so it’s important to carefully assess the potential scenarios relevant to your organization when choosing small business insurance.
Phelps said that in case the worst happens, you should already have backed up and safely stored your most critical data: your business license, major contracts and legal documents, tax returns and financial statements, and other critical business and customer documents. Following a disaster, make sure your vital records are still securely accessible from the devices you’re using.
Ensuring that your most important data is safe and secure is a core part of a business continuity plan, which should prepare you for significant disaster scenarios, such as the loss or unavailability of IT systems, key people, or a third-party facility. Make sure the appropriate personnel will have access to your business continuity plan on secured mobile devices immediately after a disaster, said Phelps.
While you’ll want to get back to normal operations as quickly as possible, recognize that your employees may be torn between returning to their jobs and dealing with their personal situations, depending on how badly they were impacted by the disaster at home. Providing workplace flexibility pays off in good times and bad, so it’s wise to allow employees to return to the office at their own pace or perhaps work from home if that’s feasible. Team members will appreciate your compassion and understanding.
After a natural disaster, people are inclined to reach out and offer their help, but not all of those people can be on location and provide hands-on assistance.
“Give [customers] a way to support your shop and your community with a donation or purchase,” Rusenko said. “People are always looking for ways to help recovery efforts, and supporting a small local business is a great way to support a recovering community.”
To achieve this, he said, make sure your online store is updated with current products. Not only will this allow you to continue to make sales, but it’s also a great way to spread awareness about recovery efforts personally and in your community. Perhaps you can even pledge to put a portion of the proceeds toward a fund for rebuilding your business’s neighborhood. [Find out how to get involved in your local SMB community.]
One of the best ways to recover from a natural (or other) disaster is to have planned for it. In addition to developing a business continuity plan, there are some essential steps you should take before anything goes wrong, as these can help you recover and rebuild faster in the aftermath.
For example, a key part of your business continuity plan should be a disaster recovery plan. While a business recovery plan is generally broader and concerned with keeping a business operational after a disaster of any type, a disaster recovery plan deals with resuming normal operations as quickly as possible. A disaster recovery plan is also tailored to the specific disaster it is meant to address; for instance, recovering from a cyber attack requires a much different approach than recovering from an earthquake. These plans should include things like procedures for dealing with property damage, restoring IT infrastructure and recovering any lost data, and workplace safety measures to be taken in the event of a disaster that poses imminent danger to on-site employees.
Another important part of planning ahead is making connections in your local community. Small businesses should cultivate partnerships in their local neighborhoods, including with other businesses, local governments and nonprofits. Having these relationships in place ahead of time will help you know who to reach out to when things go wrong.
Another way to plan ahead is to look at the vendors you rely on. Even if you have great business continuity and disaster recovery plans, do you have any idea what your critical suppliers are planning to do in times of crisis? You should ask these tough questions before the (literal or figurative) storm hits, not after. Be sure to thoroughly discuss contractual obligations in the event of an emergency with vendors, and consider adding a clause to your contracts outlining emergency procedures. If one of your third-party vendors isn’t prepared, you can work with that company to improve their readiness or look for a better supplier to work with instead.
As noted above, calling your business’s insurance agency should be one of your first actions after a natural disaster occurs. But FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the SBA (U.S. Small Business Administration) are worth a call as well. You can reach out to either organization directly for help in the wake of a natural disaster. Also, check out their YouTube channels for informative videos that explain the resources and support programs available.
Did you know? The SBA offers disaster assistance loans specifically designed to help small businesses recover from a disaster. SBA loans are often easier to get than regular loans and have lower interest rates and longer terms. To learn more, see our guide to getting an SBA loan.
After a natural disaster, you may want to take a look at your operations to see if there are ways to expand or change your business strategy to ramp up sales going forward, said Rusenko.
“It’s a good time to assess if you’re exploring every possible channel with your business – online, offline, inbound leads, email marketing, social marketing, etc.,” he said. “Taking a step back and making small changes can help with reaching your goals and recovering from a potential drop in sales.”
Natural disasters can be devastating for your business, but there are steps you can take to minimize their impact and accelerate the process of resuming normal operations. The most important parts of rebuilding your business after a disaster should happen long before the disaster hits. Ensuring that you have a business continuity plan and a disaster recovery plan, insurance that covers the full range of disasters that could affect your business, vendors who are well prepared for a disaster, and that your most important data is safely stored, backed up and accessible should be your top priorities.
Proactively fostering meaningful relationships with other businesses and members of your community is crucial since it creates a network of mutual support during times of crisis. When that crisis occurs, you’ll want to communicate with all relevant parties as soon as possible and follow the procedures you set up in advance. While disasters are often out of our control, how we prepare for and behave after the unthinkable occurs can help us retain as much power and agency as possible in the face of chaos.
Jocelyn Pollock contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.