Business Lessons from a Superstorm

Sandy taught many small businesses a thing or two about preparedness and resilience.
Senior Scientist, Global Workplace Analytics (formerly Telework Research Network)
November 12, 2012

After a cataclysm such as Hurricane (or "Superstorm") Sandy there are winners and losers, good guys and bad guys. A bit of reflection today can help you get it right when the next disaster occurs.

There are dozens of articles and manuals full of dos and don’ts for disaster preparedness and disaster recovery, so we’re not going to go there. Instead, let’s look at some instructive situations that will help you profit when you find yourself figuratively, maybe even literally, up to your wallet, in alligators.

Winners and Losers

Take, for example, the 35 or so alligator ranchers in Louisiana, who, after Hurricane Katrina, had their worst season in 18 years. Too much saltwater due to the storm surge was part of their problem, but the bigger issue was 10 months without enough rainwater to flush the swamps. Almost 20 percent of the eggs they found and hatched had to go to intensive care. The hatchlings were skinny gators with bellies so large that their little legs couldn’t touch the ground. Despite heroic efforts, the ranchers lost 40 percent of their annual hatch.

The moral of the story?

If you’re in a business that is affected—for better or worse—by weather, you need to adapt to the change that’s already occurring. Global warming is a reality, regardless of your opinion about the cause. Warmer water means more energy for storms, and a warmer skies hold more rain (and, paradoxically, more snow, too). For our beleaguered Louisianians, that means an alligator farm, where you raise fewer gators in a controlled environment, may be a better financial bet than an alligator ranch subject to the whims of nature.

Losses for the Travel Industry

Further north, a business travel association recently predicted that over half a million trips would be cancelled by superstorm Sandy. The result would be over half a billion dollars lost to local transportation and hospitality businesses. Sure, some of those trips will occur eventually, but many never will because the business necessity or vacation opportunity is gone.

Gains for the Construction Industry and Others

On the other hand, construction companies and businesses that sell disaster preparedness equipment and kits have enjoyed the surge. A week after Sandy, solar-powered cell phone chargers, gas cans, and generators were almost impossible to find in some areas, even online.

The point is to think about how you can change your business model today so it’s resilient in the face of tomorrow’s disasters.

Good Guys and Bad Guys

Disasters bring out both sides of people.

Gawkers selfishly block first responders, customers are gouged on price, scammers offer help for a hefty cash price and then disappear. And some business people just don’t seem to have a sense of decency.

One company, promoted “a deal that will blow you away” while houses were being destroyed by the winds of Hurricane Sandy. Another sent an insensitive email blast for a SANDYSALE, “in case you’re bored with the storm.”

Meanwhile, banks extended credit payment deadlines, airlines dropped cancellation fees, and the New York Yankees donated $500,000 to the American Red Cross.

Be a Good Guy

You don’t need to be a Fortune 500 company to make a difference. Start with taking care of your own. One business owner rented a block of rooms in a local motel for his employees who had been displaced by the storm and put them up free. Another invited six of his employees to move into his two bedroom apartment.

Think of your customers, employees, suppliers, stockholders and even total strangers.

If you have something they need that doesn’t cost you much, offer it freely. Even something as simple as a place to charge phones and computers, or access the Web can be a big help. Do you run a laundromat? Offer to wash and dry clothes. Do you have a fleet of vehicles? Offer them to haul emergency supplies, or help people move. With roads at Gandy’s Beach, NJ washed away, big back-hoes and skip-loaders were the only way residents whose homes hadn’t been destroyed could reach them.

In short, treat your people, your neighbors, and your customers as if they were family. It’s infectious, too. Research has shown that people who observe good deeds are more likely to be charitable themselves. It sounds trite, but one random act of kindness can create an avalanche of good deeds, and your business will profit.

Read more disaster-related posts.  

Tom Harnish is a serial entrepreneur. Always on the bleeding edge of technology, he learned what works (and what doesn't) leading projects, products and companies to success (mostly). He can't play a lot of musical instruments.

Photo: Getty Images 
Senior Scientist, Global Workplace Analytics (formerly Telework Research Network)