Each day post Sandy, I have spent either freezing, searching for charging stations or making my way to multiple hotels across state lines. Throughout my post Sandy experience, has been the adventure of trying to get a team back to New York and trying to get the office up and running again. See, my main office is in the area between Gramercy and Chelsea in Manhattan. This may not mean much to many outside of New York. What this means overall is that the office has been without power for 120 hours. The office is in that area below 34th street that has been devastated. It is at the divide between the have and the have nots: in terms of electrical power. Who would have thought that? Yes, New York City definitely has huge wealth gaps between the rich and poor, but money has nothing to do with this now. Well, actually let me take that back. How is it that Wall Street (which is in the most devastated Manhattan area) has electrical power and hospitals further north do not and had to evacuate hundreds of patients? So, there are still wealth inequalities to bemoan.
We deployed various staff on foot and on bikes to the office building to try to find a way inside the building. We cannot access our emails. We cannot access various important electronic records. We cannot access our files and paper records. We keep thinking if there was only a way to get into the building. But what if we could? There is still no power. We fantasized about making our way ninja-like into the building and running up the stairs (since elevators wouldn’t work) to only realize that the stairwell access is locked from within the office floor. Meaning, that you cannot get into the office through the stairwell without someone first opening the stairwell from the inside. It’s a very quirky New York thing. New York buildings are filled with old cranky elevators and long, long staircases. We then thought about maybe climbing up the outside fire escape stairs. But we are on the 10th floor and cops would probably not look too fondly on that. Also, the windows have gates on the inside. Oh New York, how you test me!
On the way to the office, those that were deployed to assess the situation came across countless interesting scenes such as people laying out their home food for others to partake of. For instance, a few people laid out tables with bread-all types of bread. People can and to truly come together in New York in innovative ways.
Back to the office problem. See, non-profits in the heath arena oftentimes operate in a social justice vein. They are day in and day our concerned with meeting the needs of the needy. They oftentimes do not stop to think beforehand (even if they have been through 9/11) what to do if the office is the one in need. What does one do to prepare beforehand; particularly when 30% of your staff consists of road warriors.
- Have multiple paper copies of important banking records at the houses of key management staff.
- Have a complete call tree list and communication system laid out beforehand. Review right before a hurricane is about to hit. Include in this, a way for people on the road to report to one or two key people
- Have a list of key people that will be needed for the recovery phase: IT person, landlord and so on.
- Have several master keys that are with people in different parts of the city who will have different access points to the office.
- Make sure people understand what type of work they should bring home with them in case there is extended work from home options. Ensure that people have hard drives, cds or memory sticks to carry those documents with them easily.
- Have multiple ways of contacting staff: text, work email and personal email. Perhaps devise a particular type of smoke signal or invest in carrier pigeon beforehand?
- Create a password-enabled website where you can share documents regardless of office server working.
- Change the locks of the offices so that the office staircase entrance is accessible from the stairwell.
- Make sure to text or email staff daily during the crisis just to connect emotionally. These can be anxiety-ridden uncertain moments. A bit of the human connection can go a long way to easing fears.
- Make sure to communicate, as an agency, with outside partners, funders and stakeholders to ensure them that the office is Ok and that you are still in business.
Throughout these tips, it becomes evident you need a communicator in chief during these trying times. It need not be top management. It can also be divided amongst a couple of people. But communication is the key. Information is the key. People can have a lot of patience during uncertain times if there is a flow of communication that is somewhat consistent (taking into account severity of crisis) and informational. Updates have an immense psychological value that should not be underestimated or discounted.
Lastly, write this all up as a crisis management plan that details what to do in case of terrorism; fire, power outages. But do not shelve the plan. Have it be an accessible, available and affordable plan. It must be accessible as a hard copy at key staff’s homes. It must be electronically available in different formats. It has to be realistic in its implementation in terms of psychological, physical and effort cost. Make the plan a living, breathing document that gets re-evaluated annually and after any implementation. There are bound to be more crises. Sandy was a horribly destructive superstorm. But let’s not be taken by surprise again. Let us learn and let us act wisely based on that painfully-gained knowledge.