Growing up on the west coast of Florida, I’ve seen my share of Hurricanes. No one, however, has seen the likes of what has occurred over this last month. In fact, this past year has been riddled with crisis from wildfires, earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes, to global cyber-attacks at a scale unlike what we’ve seen before. The one thing that all of these events have shown us is that accurate and constant communication is critical. Proper notification (when possible), and continual communication during the event and during response set the tone for how quickly we can recover.
Florida and Texas are no strangers to hurricanes. In fact, experiencing a hurricane at this time of year is expected. However, it was the magnitude of Harvey and Irma that was unprecedented.
According to FEMA – “Governors should plan to use the widest array of communication methods possible to ensure that the public receives vital information during disasters. Those include television, radio, road signs, texts, and social media. Governors can also use systems like the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System to push information out to the public by using them to issue emergency alerts, including wireless emergency alerts, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio, and other public alerting systems.”
Likewise, organizations should also consider the impact to their business and their employees in their emergency preparedness plans and how they should communicate.
Despite remarkable response by FEMA during both Harvey and Irma, there was a loss of vital communications when power supplies were lost due to flooding and power losses. Critical infrastructure was addressed immediately, but in both cases, there are still some areas still being worked on in the hardest areas hit. As each state (and the surrounding states affected) recover, let’s discuss the approach to communication during these super storms and the impact to recovery.
Harvey delivered over 20 trillion gallons of rain falling over the city of Houston with 13 million people directly affected. Despite successful evacuation notifications, this slow-moving storm delivered a punch at scales never predicted. Yet, in spite of the havoc Harvey wreaked on the city, Houston was remarkable with keeping communications up and running and organizations functioning during the event and now during recovery.
Although not perfect, Houston certainly proved itself through its communication networks holding up during the storm. Only 4% of 7,804 cell sites in Houston’s path were knocked out and, although Texas’s 9-11 system was overloaded with calls, the calls were still going through and being addressed. This is certainly progress from hurricane Katrina 11 years ago, when over 1,000 cell sites were knocked out, preventing millions of calls from going through.
Top Houston-based corporations and data centers were also able to keep their IT systems running— protecting data–some by keeping applications in the cloud, some by moving core IT systems to the cloud in anticipation of the storm. Waste Management, a comprehensive waste and environmental services company, shut down its headquarters, but because of the steps it took, its IT staff were able to keep the company’s data systems running from a safe, remote location. Their ability to recover will be a lot easier than other organizations that may not have had such foresight.
On the healthcare side, Texas Medical Center was protected by the storm gates–built after storm Allison in 2001–to protect its assets. Helicopters were able to land there and the staff, which came before the storm began, were able to serve patients. On the flip side, we also saw residents at the La Vita Bella Assisted Living community (that sheltered in place) get rescued when a tweet of elderly patients sitting in waste high flood waters was seen by local officials. Although the communication of the tweet worked, which is fantastic, we have a long way to go on protecting our seniors from ending up in these situations in the first place.
As some hospitals had to evacuate patients, the U.S Department of Health and Human Service (HHS) declared a public health emergency and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services waived document requirements typically needed for hospitals and nursing homes to provide care to patients. In fact, HHSrecently issued new rules for healthcare providers and suppliers to bolster their emergency preparedness plans, with deadlines upcoming in mid November.
Irma had quite a different communication experience, much due to its unpredictability. As meteorologists tried to predict the path of the mega storm, the Category 5 hurricane ended up prompting the largest evacuation in U.S history of over 630,000 people in Florida. Evacuation communication was handled as well as it could be as the path of the hurricane changed, however it left many with little time to prepare – despite the week-long media coverage. Some who had evacuated to the west coast found themselves in its direct path, and the additional gas shortages, due to the impact of Harvey, made evacuation decisions even more challenging for those who were now in the storms direct path.
The notable communication surge was in the use of social media to communicate where people were located and their status. Twitter, Facebook, apps such as Nextdoor and Zello were all used to communicate with friends, family and emergency response. It got so overwhelming for emergency teams to monitor all the posts that in a tweet, the US. Coast Guard asked people to call them instead. This will certainly cause some changes in the future as emergency responders adjust to the impact of how social media is being used during events and the need for coverage to respond.
By the time Irma fizzled out it had:
Passed through 9 states and left the following residence and businesses without power:
- Florida: 15 million
- Georgia: 1.3 million
- South Carolina: 161,000
- North Carolina: 62,000
- Alabama: 20,000
As you would expect, the Keys lost over 80% of its communication towers and is still without power. While statewide it was reported that only 18% of Florida were without cell service by Wednesday after the hurricane hit. However, many throughout the state were still without power a week after the event. Many businesses took up to a week across the state to get back on line.
Although known best for tourism, with over 3500 nursing homes and assisted living locations throughout the state, Florida is also known as a retirement haven. The safety of our seniors is always a big issue during a natural disaster. Communication between emergency response and any healthcare facility must be pristine to ensure their safety as the reality is that is just as dangerous to move many seniors as it is to shelter in place. Communicating location and intentions on evacuation or sheltering is critical. Unfortunately, the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, that sheltered in place, experienced 8 deaths the week after Irma hit. A transformer that powered their air-conditioning was down, which resulted in sweltering heat for days. This is still being investigated with a lot still unknown. However apparent communication to the power company and local emergency officials did not get prioritized effectively during response orders and communications for the facility to evacuate to the local hospital were either ignored or misunderstood. No matter how this ends up, the recovery of this facility will be riddled with this investigation as well as continued patient care in light of this trauma.
Communicating During a Crisis
No matter what the crisis – communication is foundational. When it comes to importance – your cell phone is like having water and gasoline in the case of an emergency. It keeps you connected. Our first priority is always our family and friends, but we also have our business to also be concerned about. How do we keep our business safe, how do we communicate with colleagues and clients and ensure they are safe and that business can continue as soon as possible? In some case, business can’t stop – such as healthcare. So how do we ensure that caring for patients can continue and that we are prepared for any type of incident, emergency or crisis? Ensuring that your communication plans are solid is the first step.
No one should want to depend on a phone tree where you never know if someone received a voicemail. Emergency means just that – emergency. That means instantaneous response. Proof of receipt. That is why so many have turned to social media for personal notification. However, for business – many communications, even during an emergency are still confidential to the business and need to be protected from leaks. Whether an impending storm, a chemical spill, a cyber breach or during clean up after an earthquake – all could be discussions that necessitate confidential, secure discussions that do not belong on non-secure channels.
Secure, encrypted text messaging provides an alternative channel, outside of your network, to continue critical conversations to discuss emergency notification, response and recovery. Whether a security breach, terrorist attack or an act of nature such as Harvey and Irma, every organization must be prepared to respond in a secure and efficient manner to minimize the impact to its employees, clients and its bottom line.
Contributor: Kristi Perdue Hinkle