By Lynn A. Knight
In the minds of many, disasters are the responsibility of emergency management professionals.
I recently returned from Saipan, which suffered a direct hit by a devastating typhoon on Aug. 2. Federal Emergency Management Agency officials who were on the scene said it was as bad as any disaster they had seen. There was virtually no coverage of this federally declared disaster in the U.S. mainland media; however, in local papers, islanders were informed that the power may not be fully restored for two to three months.
I find myself wondering who local businesses can look to for assistance now that the power is out, they can’t serve their customers, they have no revenues to meet the payroll, and they need financing to replace inventory or repair facilities. Are they calling the federal government, the governor’s office, the Chamber of Commerce, the local economic development organization? Or are they strictly on their own to survive?
The sad truth is it can take just a few hours of a disaster to set your economy back years.
Here are five priorities for disaster preparedness based on the experience of economic developers who have worked after Hurricane Katrina and other places on major recovery issues.
1) It’s important to take steps to ensure your economic development organizations are prepared for emergency/disaster situations and can continue operations. While other public services are devoted to individual health and safety, EDOs can help businesses survive.
2) Ask questions about your community’s vulnerability to specific disasters and how the business community might be affected. Where are your key economic anchors, business districts and industrial parks located? What are the building code requirements or redevelopment plans for those areas? Do buildings that house multiple small businesses have access to generators?
3) Review your community’s comprehensive emergency management/mitigation plan to see how it might impact local businesses and the economy if put into action. Businesses are often surprised by policies or procedural decisions included in these plans and how they impact their ability to continue operations after a disaster. These plans discuss issues such as access to property, how to deal with missing public utility services, like water, power and sewer services, and more.
4) Organize a workshop for small businesses on business continuity planning and disseminate important business insurance information. Small- and medium-sized businesses often don’t have the resources to assess how their operations could be affected in the event of a major emergency. EDOs and chambers can provide a valuable service by arranging for a business continuity expert to educate small businesses on simple planning steps to protect their operations and assets. Need more information on how to do this? The International Economic Development Council is a nonprofit 501(c)3 that can help.
5) Identify recovery resources, such as sources of capital, that can be made available to businesses after a disaster. We all tend to think about health and safety first. There is nothing wrong with this. But what if we lose a large number of small businesses that are important employers in the community? EDOs and chambers of commerce will be in a much better position to serve local businesses after a disaster if they identify key resources in advance. This may include approaching local financial institutions, foundations or private organizations to set up a special fund for disaster loans and developing a list of state and federal sources.
To learn more and download a free toolkit, “Leadership in Times of Crisis,” please visit www.RestoreYourEconomy.org, a resource managed by the International Economic Development Council and funded by the U.S. Economic Development Administration.
— Lynn A. Knight is vice president of knowledge management and development for the International Economic Development Council in Washington, D.C. Her more than 30 years of domestic and international business experience include being the representative of the Northern Mariana Islands governor in Washington, D.C., and being appointed by two governors of the Northern Mariana Islands to lead economic development commissions. She also spent eight years as vice president of corporate affairs for Saipan-based Tan Holdings Corp. and served on the executive committee of Asia-Pacific Hotels Inc. and its China-based sister company, Century Tours.