Weathering Hurricane Season During the Pandemic

Erik G. Olsen


July 14, 2020

Since mid-March, when COVID-19 was declared a national emergency, companies of all sizes have faced challenges supporting their employees and protecting their businesses. As they work toward safely reopening, they may also need to worry about hurricane and storm season, as experts have forecasted above-normal activity in the Atlantic.

Even as some states reopen, social distancing guidelines and supply shortages could make it harder for business owners to protect their properties should a storm happen, making it even more important to have an action plan in place. Here are key considerations that can help businesses owners mitigate potential storm risks, and help protect their reputation, as they prepare to enter or continue operating in our new world order:    

1. Update Preparation Plans and Account for New Challenges

One unique challenge many businesses now face is learning to operate with a smaller on-site workforce as employees work remotely, abide by social distancing guidelines and care for themselves and loved ones during the pandemic. This also presents new issues for hurricane planning.

The first step companies should take as they evaluate their storm preparedness is to adapt or create emergency action plans to account for a limited on-site workforce, updating key staffing plans to comply with social distancing guidelines. With fewer people on location performing necessary preparation and repair duties, business owners should ensure that their staffing plans account for the various types of technical skillsets required to protect their property.

It can also be helpful to vet emergency contacts and call lists to establish who is going to respond to property needs if a storm happens. To help minimize the need for physical inspection in the wake of the event and the potential need for on-site response staff, companies should consider installing off-site signaling. For instance, internet-enabled devices that detect water, temperature, relative humidity, fire and other conditions can be integrated with building management systems. Additionally, companies should consider obtaining materials needed to protect property—such as generators and plywood to board up doors and windows—beforehand, as these items will be in highest demand as a storm approaches.

A limited workforce, coupled with transportation challenges such as lower port productivity and air freight movement, could also exacerbate supply shortages and delivery delays. When determining what needs the most urgent protection, either due to limited supplies or in-person workforce, business owners should consider deploying their resources against documented risk assessment needs. To be best prepared, organizations should open an effective line of communication with key partners, such as suppliers and freight forwarders.

2. Act Swiftly When a Storm is Approaching

Companies need to keep abreast of storm alerts during peak season and know which brewing storms are likely to disrupt production and shipments. In most cases, businesses will have at least 36 hours after a hurricane watch is issued. Once that watch is issued, the first step is to activate emergency response plans.

Business owners should ensure that their employees are safe and evacuate any remaining on-site non-essential personnel. They should also make sure that remaining essential staff and emergency crews have sufficient nonperishable food, drinking water and first aid supplies.

Next, business owners should begin implementing final risk mitigation tactics to protect their property from water and wind damage. This may involve:

  • Inspecting storm, roof and floor drains and removing any debris
  • Shielding all windows and doors with shutters or other materials, including plywood
  • Securing equipment stored outside, including bracing any signs, tanks, roof equipment and cranes
  • Relocating important documents and records to a secure off-site location out of the hurricane’s forecasted path

By the time a hurricane warning is subsequently issued, businesses can expect sustained winds blowing at 74 miles per hour or more in the next 24 hours. They should make final preparations to secure property immediately, so long as it is still safe to do so, whether storing those last few loose objects or boarding up the last uncovered window. Ultimately, after doing final checks for leak prevention, fire protection systems and utility systems (e.g. shutting off valves for pipes that may break from storm damage), essential personnel should relocate to a safe area.

3. Proceed with Caution When Re-opening

After a storm, business owners want to get on-site to inspect their property as soon as possible. While quick action is important to prevent any damage from getting worse, it is critical that they only return when cleared by local authorities. From there, business owners should have professionals assess their fire protection systems, gas, water and electrical lines for damage while they check on any other equipment. If needed, they can also make temporary repairs to protect their property. For anything larger, the best practice is to photograph the damage to share with their insurance carrier.

Erik G. Olsen is a vice president and executive property specialist at Chubb Risk Engineering Services.