How Small-Business Owners Can Survive Natural Disasters

Lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy.

The city of Philadelphia really dodged a bullet. All around us people and businesses are still recovering from floodwaters, loss of power, injuries and, in a few cases, death. This storm has not been funny. It has been devastating for many. The forecasters were right. Our government officials weren’t lying to us. And it will happen again. No, not because of global warming. But because this region often faces extreme weather: hurricanes, snowstorms, nor’easters, etc. Smart business people learn and plan ahead. So what did we learn from this one?

Business travelers: Read the fine print of your airline’s “waiver” policy. US Airways announced that it was “relaxing” its change fee policy for the duration of the hurricane. That’s nice, but of course it would be nicer if they ended this practice altogether like Southwest, or at least permanently relaxed it for their frequent fliers. I like US Airways, but this is really annoying. More importantly was the fine print. I found out that they “relaxed” the change fees as long as you traveled within about six weeks or so of your original travel date. Before you go changing your reservation to fly on another airline (that doesn’t cancel flights 48 hours before the storm in order to get its airplanes far out of town, despite the serious inconvenience to its passengers, and then doesn’t answer the phone when you call customer service), you may want to double-check the fine print. Or you’ll get hit for another $150 the next time you want to use your so-called “refund” to purchase another ticket.

Plan to use the downtime. We knew this storm was coming at least a week in advance. A lot of smart business owners I know planned for the downtime in advance. They used it to catch up on paperwork, clean up the office, review policies and lay out their marketing plans for the next year. It’s not often that you get time during the workweek to do busy work without being interrupted by your company’s demands.

Get a generator. Or better yet, break down and buy a generator from Home Depot. You’ll use it. They’re relatively inexpensive. Keep it gassed up and check on it once a year. The priority here is not really just to keep your business going. Your customers will understand if you’re down for a couple of days. The priority here is your employees. If they lose power, as so many did during this storm, it’s nice to know they have some place to go where there is power. A working refrigerator. An outlet where they can boil water from a kettle or charge their cell phones. A place to plug in their TV, tablet or computer to stay in touch with the outside world. Yes, I know you’re not operating a Red Cross shelter, but the welfare of your employees affects the welfare of your business. As long as they don’t have far, and it’s safe, consider making your office a little haven for those who really need it.

In future, have sympathy. Now that you know what it’s like to go through a serious, serious storm you can better connect to your customers, suppliers and partners who suffer the same thing in the future. You have a story to tell. You get it. When someone who you do business with is in an area of the country affected by a natural disaster (and they will be) make it a point to reach out to them and offer help. At the very least let them know that you know what they’re going through and offer to extend payment terms on invoices, change your delivery schedules or offer a pricing break if you think it will financially make things easier for them. When a storm like this hits, everyone’s first concern is their own family’s welfare. Next come the financial headaches of a business interrupted. Reach out and make this headache less painful … you’ll be remembered for it for a long, long time.

Get on the cloud. Most of my clients are doing this, are you? They’re either using cloud-based applications or they’ve moved their applications (QuickBooks, Office, etc.) to a cloud-based server managed by someone else. I did this over a year ago, and it helped enormously during this storm. You don’t have to worry about the power going down or something happening to your office that will damage your computers. Not that you’re a slave driver, but you can also send everyone home and (as long as they’ve still got Internet service), employees can connect to your server and still do their work (or at the very least, check on email or something critical).

Get insurance. Amazingly, I still know many business owners who either don’t have insurance or have woefully inadequate coverage. It’s not that expensive, and if you’re operating in the Philadelphia area you may really need it. And pay the little extra for business interruption coverage too; in my opinion, it’s the most important kind of coverage to have. You can always replace assets, but it’s tough to recover when you’ve been down for a few weeks.

Get perspective. Hopefully you and your family and your employees have safely survived. So think about how stupid and inconsequential your little business is. For 5,000 years before you, there were people running small businesses and there will always be for generations to come. And those people will suffer through their own natural disasters. So before you give yourself a heart attack over a missed payment, a late order, or an unhappy customer, remember that these problems are not as serious as you think. You can’t control Mother Nature. But you can fix your little, silly business problems.

Finally … go to Florida. Because that’s what I did during Hurricane Sandy. No, it wasn’t on purpose. I was at a conference in Boca Raton and was scheduled to fly back Sunday night until US Airways canceled their flights. So I was forced to spend two more days in a five-star resort on the ocean while the rest of my family hunkered down. The sushi was great. The reaction from my wife was not. The best thing to do when a major, historic storm is bearing down on your area is evacuate if you can. My advice: Make sure to bring your spouse!