Damage Control: Learning from 2017's catastrophic hurricane season


With 17 registered hurricanes in 2017, it was the most active season in over a decade. With the likes of Harvey, Irma, and Maria  they brought widespread damage, disruption, and fatalities to parts of Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and numerous islands in the Caribbean. Predictions into this season show that this momentum will not be slowing down. With the 2018 Atlantic Hurricane season upon us, we have already seen devastation in the form of Hurricane Alberto causing mass destruction in the Gulf of Mexico.

Despite the annual occurrence of hurricanes in these regions, many organisations are commonly unprepared for the intensity and trajectory of the storms, resulting in insufficient time for evacuation and significant infrastructure damage.

Hurricane Overview

The annual Atlantic hurricane season extends from late May until the end of November, peaking in late August and early September. There are five categories of tropical storms, with Categories 3-5 classified as major hurricanes; these generate winds of more than 100 miles per hour (160kph), which can cause extensive damage to property and infrastructure.


The severity of the impact of a hurricane differs according to the varying degrees of warning time, proactive mitigation and response measures. The level of damage is usually far greater in less-developed countries, which have weaker infrastructure and fewer measures in place, as well as exposed coastal areas and on small islands. The impact of a major hurricane can be catastrophic, regardless of the level of preparedness or infrastructure in a location, with reconstruction efforts sometimes ongoing for years.


2018 Forecast

According to initial predictions for the 2018 hurricane season, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is projecting a normal to above-average season.  Forecasters have indicated that we could see between 10 and 16 named storms. Out of those, between five to nine could become hurricanes, and one to four of those could become "major" hurricanes, which means a Category 3 or higher(1).

Although seasonal predictions are usually accurate, anticipating the path and intensity of the storms can be a challenge. New research is also showing that hurricanes are now moving at a slower pace than they did decades ago, amplifying their devastation(2).


Challenges of Hurricane Forecasts

In the spring of 2017, the Colorado State University Tropical Meteorology Project predicted a slightly below-average 2017 hurricane season, predicting 11 named storms, four hurricanes and two major hurricanes(3).  At the conclusion of the hurricane season, there was a record-setting 17 named storms, 10 hurricanes, six of which became major hurricanes. Despite more accurate forecasts later in the year, many meteorologists still underestimated the number and severity of storms that year.

Once a hurricane has formed, meteorologists will attempt to track and predict the trajectory and severity of the storm, which can be altered by temperature and high winds. They also evaluate critical factors, such as the probability of landfall, wind speed and flood impact, in order to estimate the damage that can be expected to occur.

Even though the path and severity of hurricanes can be difficult to forecast with complete accuracy, there is no denying that hurricane season presents annual hazards, requiring/demanding organisations to anticipate and prepare themselves for the potential impacts.


How Should Organisations Prepare?

As storms can develop or intensify rather quickly, it is important for organisations to stay apprised of the weather systems. NOAA will issue a hurricane watch 48 hours in advance of the storm and other warnings may come earlier. However, preparation time for organisations should be measured in months, not hours. Operations leaders, especially for those with locations in hurricane-prone coastal areas, should ensure that they have comprehensive procedures in place to ensure business continuity and duty of care for their organizations. 

Actions Prior to Hurricane Season Preparations for hurricane season should begin well in advance of the start of hurricane season to ensure facilities are assessed for vulnerabilities, business continuity plans are updated and exercised and escalation and evacuation planning is completed. Below are some best practice guidance for organisational preparedness: Assessments

  • Identify and assign risk ratings to locations and facilities based on the probability of hurricane impact using historical and geographic data

  • Conduct facility assessments to determine the structural resiliency

  • Identify facility upgrade opportunities for site hardening, including flooding and wind resistance

  • Understand the local emergency response capabilities and potential impact to local infrastructure

  • Ensure you have reliable information sources and are signed up to receive International SOS alerts to stay apprised as storm paths and severity

Business Continuity Planning

  • Be prepared to suspend travel to and operations at at-risk locations for periods of a week or more

  • Establish appropriate thresholds for restricting travel and a clear structure in place to communicate these measures throughout the organization, both locally and more broadly

  • Account for access disruption, to include enabling employees to have the capability and equipment to work remotely/from home

  • Develop pre-scripted messages and test means of mass notification to ensure functionality of messaging prior to an emergency

  • Ensure crisis management team members know what their roles and responsibilities are in advance

  • Consider a table-top exercise of your organisation’s incident management or business continuity plan to assess preparedness and identify areas for improvement 

Escalation and Evacuation Planning

  • Develop location-specific escalation matrices, specifying measures to be implemented during various surges of the storm and guidance from emergency services. This should include preparatory actions, stand fast conditions and non-essential/essential staff evacuations.

  • Have an evacuation plan ready should the situation escalate to the point it is more dangerous to remain than to move, factoring in that there is likely tol be competition for limited resources.

  • At risk, locations should have supplies to sustain a stand-fast of personnel during and immediately following a hurricane. This should include 10 days’ supply of food, water, communications, fuel, and medical supplies(4).


How Should Organisations Respond During a Hurricane?

Once your organisation receives notification that a hurricane is predicted to impact your workforce or area of operations, a number of actions must take place. First, the storm must be monitored with the escalation matrix in mind, to determine what thresholds have been met and the next steps your organisation might need to take. While airing on the side of caution is often positive, an early or unnecessary evacuation can be costly and a wasteful impact to business. Once thresholds for evacuation have been met, resources must be consolidated and procedures executed. 

Monitor

  • As information on tropical storms and hurricanes is released, confirm the facilities and number of local employees, travellers and expatriates in the areas that are likely to be affected 

  • Business continuity, escalation and evacuation plans should be reviewed both at the sites to be impacted, and non-impacted headquarter locations

  • Pay attention to government and International SOS recommendations for guidance on evacuation

Decide & Act

  • Decide early on whether to relocate or evacuate staff from affected areas

  • Once escalation triggers for evacuations have been met, mobilise your workforce, executing evacuation and business continuity plans

  • Do not rely on support from local emergency services, as these may be overstretched

  • Execute communication plans to account for personnel who might have been impacted to locate and assist

Recovery

After a hurricane, organisations need to understand when and how they are able to restart regular operations. Organisations need to balance the need to conduct a careful risk assessment before deciding to send travellers into impacted areas. Impacted areas will likely have a shortage of essential services, commodities, accommodation and local transportation. Airports may be closed due to damage, and commercial flights may be cancelled to allow military or aid flights to land. Medical challenges may require additional preparation and precaution. 

The annual hurricane season will continue to pose a hazard to organisations and preparation must be part of an annual cycle. The quick formation of storms, volatile trajectories and surges requires agility, but leaves little room for error. Careful assessments, methodical planning, and informed decisions are critical drivers for successfully weathering the storm. 

1 “2018 Atlantic Hurricane Season.” Glossary of NHC Terms, Climate Prediction Center, 24 May 2018, www.nhc.noaa.gov/data/tcr/index.php?season=2018. 2 "A global slowdown of tropical-cyclone translation speed", Nature.comhttps://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-018-0158-3 3 III, Wilborn P. Nobles. “2017 Hurricane Season Predicted to Be Slightly below Average.”NOLA.com, 6 Apr. 2017, www.nola.com/hurricane/index.ssf/2017/04/2017_hurricane_season_predicte.html  4 “Have 10 Days' Worth of Supplies Ready for Hurricane Season.” What Is Disaster Assistance? | FEMA.gov, Federal Emergency Management Agency, 18 Apr. 2018, www.fema.gov/news-release/2018/04/18/have-10-days-worth-supplies-ready-hurricane-season.



Authored by: Jeremy Prout - Regional Security Manager, East Region at International SOS

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